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U.S. House budget debate could set off defense battle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Defense hawks in the U.S. House of Representatives will push for more robust 2016 military spending next week, Speaker John Boehner said on Thursday, setting the stage for a potentially contentious debate as the House lays out its budget blueprint.

“There is overwhelming support in our conference for providing additional resources to protect our national security,” Boehner told reporters.

He added that the House Rules Committee, the powerful gatekeeper of legislation he controls, would consider taking a step “that reflects those priorities.”

That step would be an additional $2 billion in special defense funds to a bill that already significantly exceeds President Barack Obama’s request. The money would not be offset with savings elsewhere in the budget.

Such a move could alienate Republican fiscal conservatives who do not want to boost military spending at the expense of federal budget deficits.

Boehner will not be able to rely on any Democratic votes for the budget plan moving through the Republican-controlled House, so he cannot afford to lose many fellow Republicans.

Earlier on Thursday, the House Budget Committee advanced a plan to cut $5.5 trillion in spending over 10 years. But the debate laid bare Republican disagreements over defense funding, signaling the plan might have trouble passing the full chamber.

The fiscal 2016 budget resolution passed on a party-line vote of 22-13 after the panel’s chairman, Representative Tom Price, pulled provisions from an amendment that would have made it easier to increase defense funding without finding alternative savings.

Opposition to those provisions from fiscally conservative Republicans who want to keep statutory spending caps caused Price to delay a vote on the resolution on Wednesday night.

Passing the budget plan is normally a partisan show of unity for a non-binding document that lays out fiscal priorities and influences election campaigns.

However, about 70 House Republicans have pledged to vote against a budget that fails to match Obama’s request for a $561 billion core defense budget and $51 billion in off-budget war funding. The defense hawks argue that “sequester” spending caps enacted in 2011 are eroding the military’s ability to deal with rising global threats.

The budget plan would keep the fiscal 2016 defense cap of $523 billion and add $94 billion into the war account for a total of $617 billion.

The deleted amendment would have added another $2 billion in war funding and reversed requirements for Congress to find offsets.

Price downplayed dissent on the panel, and said it might be possible to restore the provisions in the House Rules Committee or on the House floor.

Representative Justin Amash, a fiscally conservative Republican, said it would be hard for him to support a budget with more defense spending because corresponding increases in domestic spending would be demanded by Democrats.

“I would rather keep all the levels lower and stick to the sequester,” he said. “But there are people in leadership who live outside of reality and want to increase things that Republicans like and pretend Democrats don’t exist.”

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