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Congress is sending Hagel a signal

The Senate appropriators have been struggling all week to complete a companion bill to the one passed in the House last week, providing money for this fiscal year for DOD and several other federal agencies.

The disagreements and more than 100 potential amendments (easier to offer in the Senate than in the House) have delayed consideration into next week, but it looks likely that there will be an FY 2013 appropriations bill for the Defense Department before they adjourn for Easter.

Meanwhile, both the House and Senate Budget Committees have reported out longer-term budgetary plans -- the budget resolutions -- that look at FY 2014 and beyond.

There is a fundamental reality about what the Congress is doing, one on which Secretary Hagel must focus. The signals are clear: The Senate and the House are not going to use the appropriations bills or the budget resolutions to bail out DOD from the sequester and a long-term drawdown in the defense budget. Time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Flexibility to deal with sequestration was one such signal. The House appropriations bill did not give DOD any greater flexibility than it now has to reprogram or transfer monies between accounts. It did increase operations funding, like the administration had requested, which raises the baseline from which sequestration would happen. And it provided some legislative relief from provisions in last year's defense budget, which would have hamstrung DOD unless they got a new bill covering this year.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski made a more direct attack to provide transfer flexibility. But it failed, and the reason for the failure is significant: Unless every agency got that flexibility, it was clear that it was not going to pass. Defense was not going to get special treatment.

Signal two is in the budget resolutions. As I noted earlier this week, Chairman Ryan's bill folded on the hope that DOD might get more funding in the long-term than the Budget Control Act caps passed in August 2011. He tried that last year and it went nowhere -- it wasn't even useful to Mitt Romney, who argued in his campaign that DOD should get four percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

This year, he abandoned that trench for the next one: holding the line at the BCA level for the next 10 years. That's probably the high-water mark, because Sen. Patty Murray's proposal takes another $240 billion out of the BCA funding levels over the next ten years.

The administration is going to send up its budget, one day. Maybe in early April. And it is going to be a mythical beast that ignores the signals. It will hope for the BCA levels, which is just plain unrealistic.

Secretary Hagel is supposed to send out guidance for the Department's next Quadrennial Defense Review next week. If realism is going to set in at DOD, that guidance had better make the QDR a resource-driven effort and start looking at decisions and options at budget levels below the BCA caps. That would send the internal signal the services need to hear.

Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images

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