For the first time since 2001, there is real and building momentum to include caps or even reductions in defense spending as part of the bipartisan drive to address the United States' runaway deficits.
Defense spending, which has more than doubled since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, has always been the third rail of congressional funding debates. After Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last year that "the spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing," there was widespread skepticism in Washington that either party would take up the cause.
Gates is directing all the military services to tighten their belts, and Pentagon sources say that every shop is looking for things it can do without. But as part of Gates's plan to incentivize the military to get rid of waste, he's instituted a policy that services can "keep what they catch," so that initiative won't lower budgets all by itself.
But now, a growing chorus of congressional Democrats, along with a smattering of Republicans, is feeling more confident that 2011 could be the year when actual limits on defense funding, or even cuts to the defense budget, might be imposed.
A watershed moment in this debate came last week, when the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Daniel K. Inouye, D-HI, unveiled spending guidelines for all the Senate subcommittees. His initial guidelines for the defense subcommittee, which he also chairs, limited core defense spending to $522.8 billion, $2.1 billion less than the president's request.
But when Republicans clamored at the hearing for lower overall spending, Inouye later reduced the total allocations by another $6 billion, taking all of that spending authority from defense.
The final guidelines also recommend $157.8 billion in war funding for next year, about $1 billion less than what the administration had asked for.
"It does not need to be said that the nation is at war and faces threats to our security globally. We cannot afford to let down our guard. Nonetheless, I believe we can achieve savings in our Defense Department, which would allow us to curtail defense spending modestly," Inouye said.
Although Inouye's spending levels are less than what Obama requested, the senator would still allow the defense budget to grow by almost $14 billion over last year's level, and he doesn't support a total freeze on defense spending.
But just in case anyone wanted to criticize the reductions he did recommend, he was quick to point out that 56 senators have voted for an amendment by Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-AL, and Claire McCaskill, D-MO, that would have placed a firm cap on defense spending and actually would have cut Obama's fiscal 2011 defense request by $9.5 billion.
Although the Sessions-McCaskill amendment was never enacted, the vote shows that even Republicans are now cautiously wading into the debate over whether defense spending is out of control.
At the same hearing last week, the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-MS, echoed the point made by President Obama and Democratic leaders like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, that the national debt and national security are intimately related.
"The economy is in distress and we need to support programs and investments that will support recovery and growth. The size of our debt poses a direct threat to our national security," Cochran said.
Other Republicans are calling explicitly for cuts to the Pentagon budget itself. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma sent a letter to the president's deficit commission explaining exactly why he thinks defense spending is ripe for cost-cutting. "I appreciate that some of these thoughts are controversial," he wrote, "even to the point that I have some reluctance in suggesting them ... However, if we are to fulfill our mandate, we must make some difficult choices, not just recommend that others do so."
Meanwhile, House Democrats are increasing their activity on the issue. The House Oversight and Government Reform National Security Subcommittee held a hearing Wednesday focused on waste at DoD.
"The critical importance of our national security does not in any way exempt the Defense Department from its obligations to spend money wisely and efficiently," said chairman John Tierney, D-MA.
The witnesses were members of the Sustainable Defense Task Force, which issued a report in June that made recommendations it claims could save $960 billion in defense spending by 2020.
Some leading conservatives, such as former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, still believe and argue passionately that defense spending should not be where the government looks for savings and that defense spending should simply continue to go up and up.
Kori Schake, a top foreign-policy advisor to Palin's running mate, John McCain, during the 2008 campaign, disagrees.
"Conservatives need to hearken back to our Eisenhower heritage, and develop a defense leadership that understands military power is fundamentally premised on the solvency of the American government and the vibrancy of the U.S. economy," said Schake, who is now with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
All told, the Pentagon requested $708 billion for all defense activities, including some nuclear energy activities, the highest level ever. In 2001, that number was $316 billion.