Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan on Thursday defended the Pentagon’s $718 billion fiscal 2020 budget request in the face of Democratic complaints that the Trump administration is setting up a slush fund to finance the president’s priorities.
He told a sometimes testy Senate hearing that the money is needed to confront growing threats posed by Russia, China and other rivals around the globe.
Gen. Dunford, meanwhile, rejected the notion that the U.S. should vow to never be the first to fire nuclear weapons in a conflict. That idea has gained traction among a number of Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls who have endorsed a “no first strike” policy.
The Senate Armed Services Committee hearing was Mr. Shanahan’s first appearance on Capitol Hill since assuming the job Jan. 1 after Gen. James Mattis’ resignation. He and committee members sparred over funding for Mr. Trump’s border wall, the dispatch of American troops to the southern border and the future of joint U.S.-South Korean military drills, some of which have been canceled as a result of Mr. Trump’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea.
Mr. Shanahan, a former top Boeing executive who is believed to be auditioning for a permanent appointment, also endorsed the president’s plan to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops from Syria while pledging to maintain enough of a presence to keep the Islamic State from reconstituting.
But Mr. Shanahan and Gen. Dunford spent most of the hearing defending their budget request against an assault from Democrats. Gen. Dunford argued that the administration’s budget is a necessary step to repair damage caused by years of inadequate military funding and uncertainty.
“We can’t reverse decades of erosion in just a few years,” Gen. Dunford told the Senate committee.
Mr. Trump has requested an increase in the next defense budget of nearly 3 percent, which has been met with mixed reaction on Capitol Hill. Republicans initially anticipated a number closer to 5 percent, and some key Democrats have already rejected the proposed increase as too high.
Democrats offered little objection to the Pentagon’s base request of $553 billion, but they blasted the department’s proposed $165 billion “overseas contingency operations” budget, a pot of money originally earmarked to fund U.S. military operations abroad and to cover unanticipated missions and costs.
The size of the overseas contingency operations funding has exploded in recent years and now includes money for “base” Defense Department expenses, leading critics to charge that it is being used to skirt spending caps on the regular defense budget.
“What we’re really talking about here is the establishment of a slush fund to hide what’s happening with defense spending,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who is seeking her party’s presidential nomination.
Mr. Shanahan denied those allegations, though officials seemed to concede that the overseas contingency operations budget has outgrown its initial purpose.
“There is no slush fund,” the acting secretary told Ms. Warren.
Gen. Dunford was pressed by Sen. Debra Fischer, Nebraska Republican, on the proposed No First Use Act, co-sponsored by Ms. Warren, that would make it the official policy of the U.S. not to be the first war combatant to use nuclear weapons. The Pentagon has long resisted the concept as too constraining.
“Current policy is the right policy,” Gen. Dunford said. “I wouldn’t make any decisions to simplify an adversary’s decision-making calculus. I can also imagine a few situations where we wouldn’t want to remove that option from the president.”
Mr. Shanahan also unequivocally denied reports that Mr. Trump plans to charge countries that house U.S. troops a much higher rate to cover the cost of the deployment. Those reports raised hackles among allies such as Germany, Japan and South Korea.
“We’re not going to run a business, and we’re not going to run a charity,” Mr. Shanahan said. “The important part is that people pay their fair share.”
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