WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers signaled a difficult battle ahead for the Obama administration's plan to dramatically overhaul the nation's military, voicing opposition Tuesday to proposed cuts in benefit packages, long-standing weapons programs and bases that mean money and jobs across America.
The skepticism from both Republicans and Democrats augured poorly for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's vision of shrinking the Army to its smallest size in three-quarters of a century and creating a nimbler force more suited to future threats than the large land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. Tuesday's advance of a new veterans bill also suggested Congress may be more interested in increasing military spending in a midterm election year.
The cuts "will weaken our nation's security while the threats we face around the world are becoming more dangerous and complex," Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two leading GOP hawks, said in a joint statement. "Now is not the time to embrace a defense posture reminiscent of the years prior to World War II," they said, without outlining substitute cost reductions.
Although Congress has agreed on keeping next year's military budget just under $500 billion, major tradeoffs must still be made to get under the cap.
Tensions exist in both parties. GOP hawks are lining up against tea party supporters keen to rein in spending, while Democrats backing the Obama administration must deal with colleagues from military-heavy districts and states fretful about the potential fallout. Automatic spending cuts that landed heavily on the military were only eased somewhat by a budget agreement two months ago.
The evidence since then suggests appetite is waning for difficult decisions on defense reductions, especially as the nation gears up for congressional elections in November.
Two weeks ago, the House and Senate overwhelmingly eliminated a cut in veterans' benefits of less than 1 percent that lawmakers themselves enacted only in December. On Tuesday, a Democratic bill expanding health, education and other benefits for veterans at a cost of $21 billion over the next decade unanimously cleared an initial hurdle, with the Senate voting 99-0 in favor of starting debate.
"There's a lot of need in the veterans community," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who sponsored the legislation.
Still, the measure faces an uncertain future. Some Republicans consider it a campaign season ploy by Democrats to force them to oppose helping veterans. The House has approved some of the benefit improvements in Sanders' bill, but Republicans controlling that chamber oppose other parts and want other ways of financing the costs.
"We don't have enough money right now, in my view, to defend the nation," Graham told reporters. The South Carolina senator added: "I want to help veterans, but we got to have a sense of priority here."
More is at stake when it comes to the plan Hagel unveiled Monday, which would shrink the active-duty Army from 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000 — making it the smallest since just before the U.S. entered World War II. The time frame for the reduction wasn't specified.
Hagel said it was necessary to reshape forces to confront a "more volatile, more unpredictable world." The nation can afford the smaller military so long as it retains a technological edge and the agility to respond on short notice to crises anywhere on the globe, he said.
President Barack Obama will submit the budget to Congress next week.
A hearing Tuesday of the Senate Armed Services Committee provided a glimpse at some of the debates that await the plan.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman, asked Obama's nominee for the No. 2 post at the Pentagon to justify the smaller pay rises and reductions in housing allowances, health benefits and other subsidies for service members and retirees.
"We want to compensate our men and women for everything that they do for their nation, but we need to slow down the growth of personnel compensation so that we can spend more money on readiness and modernization," said Robert Work, a former top Navy official nominated to be deputy secretary of state.
"We have to make some savings," added Michael McCord, nominee for undersecretary of defense. He said civilian and military compensation comprises half of the Pentagon's budget.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., doubted the economic arguments behind closing bases in the United States and urged cuts overseas instead. Work suggested the military was studying reducing capacities in Europe, too.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine sought assurances the Navy would maintain a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers — a vital issue in his state of Virginia, where carriers are often based and repaired.
Polls show the American public split on the overall issue of defense spending. Republican voters are more likely to say it should be higher while Democratic voters are more likely to say it should be lower. But maintaining bases and manufacturing operations becomes much more sensitive when it affects jobs close to home.
More battles between the administration and Congress are lurking. Speaking to reporters, Levin said the Pentagon's proposal to scrap the Air Force's A-10 "Warthog" tank-killer aircraft would be a particularly tough sell. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said scrapping the plane was a "serious mistake" and vowed to fight it.
Governors, too, have entered the fray over plans to transfer equipment from Army National Guard units. Some in Congress oppose almost any cuts at all.
"We have been cutting and cutting for the last five years," said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the Senate Armed Services Committee's top Republican.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.