By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, Feb 6 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers need to drop parochial interests and make tough decisions about U.S. military bases, personnel costs and arms programs given continued pressure to reduce federal deficits, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday.
"There is going to be a sustained period of pressure on the budget of the federal government, and I don't see that letting up soon," said Representative Adam Smith from Washington state, but added many lawmakers had not yet accepted that fact.
Smith said a two-year budget deal passed by Congress last year eliminated some uncertainty about funding levels, but no solution had been found for mandatory budget cuts that remain in effect for seven years starting in fiscal 2016.
U.S. arms makers sought to reassure investors in recent weeks, forecasting that U.S. military budgets would likely hit their low point in 2014 and 2015, with spending likely to stabilize and rise after that.
Smith said he expected defense spending to remain flat for a period of time.
"We're in a different world. We're not going to have anywhere near as much money," he said, adding that special interests and many lawmakers were still trying to protect "every little piece," from military pay to bases to programs.
"We need a strategic response from Congress other than 'No, don't cut that,'" he said. "We need to start making a little bit less parochial and more long-term decisions on how to handle the budget."
If lawmakers blocked all cuts to compensation, bases and equipment, the military would ultimately be forced to curtail training, resulting in a "hollow force" that could not respond to military crises, Smith said.
Smith said it also was frustrating that Congress was revisiting its decision to cut annual cost-of-living adjustments to pensions for military retirees.
Smith said he had not fully considered the possibility of eliminating one of 11 U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, but said the proposal merited a closer look since it would save a substantial amount of money.
U.S. Navy officials had suggested the possibility of skipping the refueling of one nuclear-powered carrier by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc, but they insist that no final decision has been made.
The White House is expected to submit its fiscal 2015 budget plan to Congress on March 4, which will start months of debate on Capitol Hill over funding priorities.
Smith said he had not made up his mind about a drive by Boeing Co to sell additional EA-18G electronic attack planes or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets to the Navy. The answer, he said, would depend on whether Lockheed Martin Corp was able to deliver the new F-35 fighter on schedule.
Boeing, which has a large production facility in Smith's home state, needs to secure an order from the Navy in the fiscal 2015 budget to keep open its F/A-18 production line in St. Louis beyond 2016. Boeing argues that its F/A-18 and EA-18G aircraft are less risky investments for the Pentagon since the planes are already in production, while Lockheed is still completing development and testing the F-35.
Smith said earlier decisions to order additional Boeing fighters made sense given delays in the F-35 program, but "long-term, the F-35 is the replacement and the F/A-18 is going away and that's just the way that it is."
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