GOP members of Congress have long complained that President Clinton has been less than generous when it comes to drawing up the Pentagon budget. But it's unlikely that boom times are now back for the Department of Defense - even though the new Republican majority will soon control the nation's checkbook on Capitol Hill.
In their much-balleyhooed ``Contract with America,'' House Republicans vow that they'll end what they term the Clinton ``raid'' on defense spending to pay for other government programs. But the Contract is vague on how much, or even whether, the military budget should be increased in coming years. Given deficit pressures and the priority accorded to tax cuts, Congress will be hard pressed to find much more money for the military anytime soon, according to budget analysts and even some senior GOP legislators.
But that doesn't mean the new GOP majority and its Contract agenda might not make profound changes in US national defense. Republicans could well push through a rebirth of the ``Star Wars'' antimissile program, as the Contract calls for. Contract provisions critical of UN peacekeeping efforts reflect a deep GOP suspicion of deploying US troops overseas in such a role.
In a letter to the president earlier this month, incoming Senate majority leader Bob Dole of Kansas and House Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich of Georgia went so far as to urge Clinton to reject any new peacekeeping missions. ``The UN-driven system of peacekeeping has failed,'' they wrote.
Of course, Contract aside, the Republican ascendency may already have had something of an upward impact on US defense dollars. When Mr. Clinton made a Rose Garden announcement on Dec. 1 that he was increasing military-readiness spending by $25 billion over the next six years, many in Washington felt he was responding to criticism from Republicans that some US armed units have been careening back toward the unready ``hollow military'' state of the late 1970s.
Republicans have even managed to persuade the Clinton administration to entertain the notion of possibly purchasing more B-2 bombers. After meeting the incoming chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Rep. Floyd Spence (R) of South Carolina and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R), also of South Carolina, Secretary of Defense Bill Perry said ``there's a possibility'' he would recommend more B-2s if an ongoing Pentagon study backs such a move.
But the Contract contains no hard figures on proposed defense spending increases in coming years. Instead, the ``National Security Restoration Act,'' the defense section of the Contract, promises to address concerns that readiness has suffered due to past military-funds reductions. It promises to restore budget ``firewalls'' preventing Defense Department money from being diverted for social programs.
And the Contract promises to establish a blue-ribbon commission of independent defense experts to assess future military spending needs. ``Significant increases may be necessary in the future to maintain a capable force of the planned size,'' says the authorized GOP Contract text.
The most prominent new military capability mentioned by the Contract is antimissile defense. With Reaganesque language the GOP agenda explicitly calls for deploying a system ``capable of defending the United States against ballistic-missile attacks.''
That means a return to the days of the Strategic Defense Initiative, something the administration is likely to fiercely resist due to its expense and technical controversy. Antimissile work has been proceeding apace under Clinton officials, but with ``a special emphasis on theater ballistic-missile defense,'' noted Secretary Perry in a recent press briefing.
ADMINISTRATION officials claim this more limited approach, which involves Patriot-like weapons to defend small areas, is much more feasible.
On peacekeeping operations, the prospective National Security Restoration Act would restrict US troops from taking part in military operations under foreign or UN command. It would tighten budgeting rules for such operations, and require that Congress be kept more closely informed of peacekeeping planning.
Such moves would likely strike a chord among many lawmakers of both parties, given negative feelings about the UN and peacekeeping that date back to the US experience in Somalia. The administration already moved to more carefully define its peacekeeping policy in a presidential directive of last May.
The GOP Contract does not call for a general withdrawal from world affairs, however. A last main directive calls for the US to open full NATO partnership discussions with nations ``that are striving to embrace democracy.'' The Clinton team is gradually edging in a similar direction.
But actually exchanging a vow of mutual defense with Eastern European nations would be a major expansion of US overseas commitment - and might well prove controversial in Congress.