U.S. Congressional Defense Leaders Set for Budget Battle

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WASHINGTON — As congressional Republicans and U.S. President Barack Obama battled during his first term over defense and national security policy issues, the House and Senate Armed Services committees took center stage.

To be sure, the annual fight over the National Defense Authorization Act garnered national attention as Washington noisily debated issues such as terrorist detainee policy and building an East Coast missile shield.

All signs indicate that is about to change. With the dreaded sequestration cuts set to reduce planned Defense Department spending by $500 billion over a decade, the congressional appropriations committees will take on added prominence. That is because once the Pentagon moves beyond 2013, it will get a lot more sway over how to enact the sequester cuts slated to happen in 2014 through 2021.

“I’m not that worried about [sequestration],” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in a recent interview. “Some of — not all, OK — the national security guys who have come to see me say, ‘Bob, after the next seven months, it’s not that hard to manage,’ because then they can work with the appropriators. It goes back to the normal process.”

Here is a summary of key lawmakers to track in 2013, including new and familiar faces on the appropriations panels that will work with Department of Defense (DoD) brass to enact sequestration:

  • Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski. The tough Maryland Democrat brings her blunt style to the Senate’s top money-doling post. The first woman to chair the powerful panel, Mikulski hails from a state with a big defense-sector presence.
  • Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin. Subcommittee chairmen generally are proponents of the issues on which their panels focus. And it is never a bad thing when the chair of the subpanel that oversees your agency’s budget is a member of the Senate leadership team. Both are true of the Illinois Democrat, who is the Senate majority whip.
  • House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Harold Rogers and defense subcommittee Chairman Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young. These two faces remain, which is good news for the Pentagon and the defense sector. The Kentucky and Florida Republicans are old-school appropriators as their House GOP caucus has a new top priority: Cut federal spending and everything else be damned. Can Rogers and Young fight off calls from their own caucus for DoD cuts beyond those called for under sequestration?
  • House and Senate ArmedServices strategic forces subcommittee Chairmen Rep. Mike Rogers and Sen. Mark Udall. The Alabama Republican and Colorado Democrat hail from places that have a big stake in the nation’s strategic arsenal. Expect both to lobby hard to keep this part of the budget sound. One thing to watch is how closely Udall sticks to any nuclear arms cuts the White House might propose as budgets shrink.
  • Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee ranking member Sen. John McCain. The “maverick” is back. McCain is as feisty and relevant as he has been since losing the 2008 presidential race. A former Navy pilot, McCain is an advocate of using the fleet to pursue America’s foreign policy goals. But he also is a leading critic of the Pentagon’s troubled history with designing and fielding new weapon systems. Look for fireworks as the Arizona Republican grills sea service brass.
  • House Armed Servicestactical air and land forces subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Turner, Senate Armed Services airland subcommittee Chairman Sen. Joe Manchin and ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker. The sometimes-fiery Turner and the party-loyal Wicker have one thing in common: They both are vocal opponents of Obama. Expect the Ohio and Mississippi Republicans to push back on any big changes to Army and Air Force programs Obama’s budget might propose. Manchin, meanwhile, is a Democrat with a conservative base back in West Virginia. Watch how closely he hews to Obama administration initiatives to cut end strength.
  • House Armed Services readiness subcommittee Chairman Rep. Rob Wittman and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. According to hours of testimony from the uniformed chiefs of the four DoD services, the sequestration cuts will hit the military’s readiness hard. That means the Virginia Republican and New Hampshire Democrat will have, as they work with the chiefs, perhaps the toughest task: Work with the smaller amount of funds they will have to ensure the military can carry out a robust strategy while still confronting fast-developing crises around the world.