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National Guard proposal proves to be a tough political sell
WASHINGTON -- A Pentagon plan to restructure the Army National Guard has sparked bipartisan outcries in Congress even before President Bush's formal proposal, showing the clout of a force that draws members from communities across America.
Lawmakers' pre-emptive objections also point out the hurdles facing the administration as it seeks to persuade Congress to accept any defense changes that might hurt people back home.
Bush will ask Congress on Monday to give the Pentagon $439.3 billion, excluding the costs of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. The plan will include about $5.25 billion to pay for the current numbers of Army National Guard forces, but not the higher level that Congress has authorized and lawmakers say is needed in wartime.
The Pentagon also wants to shift some Guard brigades from combat roles to support units.
"I don't see how in the world the Guard meets its mission," said Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C. Added Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.: "You can mark my words. They're not going to cut the National Guard."
His point is that lawmakers will not allow it, even though Congress is controlled by Bush's own Republican Party.
In fact, a bipartisan group of 75 senators said in a letter Thursday to the president that they "strongly oppose these proposals."
From the Capitol to statehouses, Republicans and Democrats are making the argument that the country's ability to defend itself would suffer under the Pentagon's plan, given reservists' major roles in Iraq and hurricane recovery.
The restructuring also will run into this political reality: Lawmakers are fiercely protective of citizen-soldier units that bring jobs and pride to their hometowns.
Fights over other Pentagon proposals are brewing and could prove a tough sell for Bush, especially because budget pressures from the wars, hurricane recovery and federal deficits are forcing even the military to live with smaller spending increases than it might like.
Lawmakers from the Northeast -- home to a chunk of the shipbuilding industry -- are sure to argue that the Navy must build more vessels than planned to ensure continued U.S. domination of the seas.
Ohio, Massachusetts and Indiana lawmakers are lobbying to retain money for an alternative engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, a next-generation combat plane. Scrapping the program, as the Pentagon wants, would affect plants in those states.
Additionally, lawmakers in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming are expected to fight Pentagon plans to reduce the U.S. nuclear missile stockpile by 10 percent, starting in 2007. The country's 500 Minuteman III missiles are at bases in those states.
It is the Guard proposal that has caused the most political consternation so far.
The Pentagon wants to pay for about 333,000 citizen soldiers -- the current total -- rather than the 350,000 that Congress has authorized. The Army Reserve force of 188,000 would be paid for instead of the 205,000 benchmark approved by Congress.
In addition, six of the 34 current Guard combat brigades would take on support roles.
Military officials say the changes will result in a more capable Army. Those assurances have not swayed lawmakers.
Similar opposition arose when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld proposed during the 2005 round of military base closures to restructure the Air National Guard -- and leave many units without planes.
Rep. Bill Young, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense panel, said he wanted the Army to explain the Guard proposal.
"Governors will not be happy with this at all," said Young, R-Fla.
Governors control Guard units unless the president mobilizes them for federal duty. Bush did that after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; since then, the Guard has played a large role in Iraq.
The National Governors Association wrote Bush on Friday opposing any plans to reduce Guard forces. The state leaders said the Guard is "a cost-effective, capable combat force in the war on terror and an essential state partner in responding to domestic disasters and emergencies."
For now, Rep. John McHugh, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel panel, is withholding judgment. "I promised we'd listen," said McHugh, R-N.Y.
The Senate has taken a more forceful approach.
Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sponsored legislation calling for the Pentagon to consult with Congress and governors on any proposed changes to the Guard force and structure.
As of Friday, 54 lawmakers had signed on, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The sponsors expected the Senate to approve the resolution before the president released his budget on Monday. But Frist did not call it up for a vote that could have embarrassed the administration.