1. Clock ticking on budget deal again; defense spending still unresolved
The House and Senate are only $90 billion apart on reaching a deal on the $3.5 trillion federal budget for 2014, but closing that gap is proving difficult because nobody is budging.
Delays in getting an agreement are a growing concern for lawmakers, especially members of the House and Senate appropriations committees who are trying to pass 2014 spending bills by Jan. 15 to avoid another shutdown and prevent $109 billion in sequestration cuts that would lop $53 billion from the defense budget.
Differences with defense spending are part of the problem, but only a part. The House version of the 2014 defense funding bill proposes $512.5 billion in the base budget plus $85.8 billion for contingency operations. The Senate bill proposes $516.4 billion in the base budget and $77 billion for contingency operations.
Budget negotiators are expected to resolve differences on defense spending and how much to allocate for contingency operations but details of how money would be spent would be left to the appropriations committees, which need time to make adjustments.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the Senate Appropriations Committee chairwoman, said that if budget negotiations do not wrap up before Dec. 15 — the current deadline — completing detailed budgets would be difficult because Congress is scheduled to work only eight legislative days between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15.
As budget negotiators met Nov. 13 to discuss their differences, Douglas Elmendorf, director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, warned there is no miracle cure.
With choices that include cutting discretionary spending such as the defense budget; cutting entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare; and raising taxes, lawmakers need to understand that they have to pick at least one and possibly a combination of more than one, Elmendorf said.
2. US Aircraft Carrier Group Begins Philippines Relief Operations
The U.S. Navy launched a huge relief operation in the typhoon-ravaged central Philippines Thursday, as the devastated Philippine city of Tacloban began the grim task of burying its dead.
The aircraft carrier USS George Washington and a contingent of seven supply ships arrived in the Philippine Sea early Thursday, and began delivering water and emergency rations to the wrecked city. The carrier also has medical facilities and can produce 1.5 million liters of fresh water a day. One of the ships in the carrier group, the USNS Charles Drew, made its first delivery of food and drinking water to the storm ravaged city of Tacloban Thursday.
The giant hospital ship USS Mercy also is making emergency preparations to depart the United States, and is expected to join the emergency flotilla within weeks, along with the British carrier HMS Illustrious.
3. Report: Air Force is Shrinking
The Air Force's acting secretary says the uncertainty around the federal budget makes it extremely hard to make decisions about the service's future shape and size. But even if the budget cuts are undone, the service will need to get smaller, he said.
Eric Fanning, the undersecretary of the Air Force who's currently serving as its acting top civilian, says both he and the service's chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, believe that even if the Air Force were funded up to the level it requested, it would still be spending too much money on people and planes and not enough making sure the force was trained and ready. But sequestration, he says, only adds to that problem.
Assuming the service has to meet the funding caps of the budget control act for the next several years, he says the Air Force would have to reduce in size by 25,000 airmen and 550 aircraft.
"The Air Force is too big for the budget going forward if it stays at the sequestered level," he said. "That means we're going to have to pull things out of it just to right-size it, and then pull even more things out of it to protect what we need for future investments."
Fanning, speaking at a day-long summit organized by the online publication Defense One, said the Air Force is already building politically painful reductions into the two alternative budget plans it's constructing for 2015. The version of the plan that incorporates sequestration into the picture assumes not just that the Air Force will have fewer aircraft and personnel, but that it will be doing fewer things.
Director, National Security Division