Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., on Sunday walked back his controversial assertion made this week that senior military leaders did not truly support the Pentagon’s budget request.
But he stuck with a key underlying Republican message – arguing that President Obama forced a budget cap on the Pentagon prior to its strategy review – despite Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey’s insistence otherwise.
“I really misspoke, to be candid with you, Candy. I didn’t mean to make that kind of an impression,” Ryan told host Candy Crowley on CNN’s State of the Union. “So it was clumsy in how I was describing the point that I was trying to make.”
On Thursday, at a National Journal budget summit at the Newseum in Washington, Ryan said, “We don’t think the generals are giving us their true advice. We don’t think the generals believe that their budget is really the right budget.”
Ryan’s comment at the time sparked intense criticism from the administration and House Democrats. Military leaders are required to give their “best military advice” when testifying to Congress, even if it goes against their civilian bosses in the administration.
Dempsey told reporters traveling with him at the time that he did not think Ryan was calling commanders liars, but said, “My response is: I stand by my testimony. This was very much a strategy-driven process to which we mapped the budget.”
On Sunday, trying to clarify his remark, Ryan said, “What I was attempting to say is, President Obama put out his budget number for the Pentagon first…and then they began the strategy review to conform the budget to meet that number. We think it should have been the other way around.”
In several months of congressional hearings, Republicans have attempted to drive that point. In seeking to damage President Obama, lawmakers have asked the Joint Chiefs in every possible way whether they came up with a strategy or a budget first, in making their spending choices.
The chiefs have responded by arguing that they were guided by the limits set by the Budget Control Act that Congress passed last year, more than President Obama’s initial April request for the Pentagon to find an additional $400 billion to cut from future budget requests. The top ranking officers have said either they devised the strategy and budget concurrently, or that the strategy came first; but they generally have dismissed Republican concerns about the timing.
On Sunday Republicans made clear they are not letting up on the strategy-first criticism. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told CNN’s State of the Union, “I think we have to take the generals’ word as they give it to us.”
But he claimed there was “clearly” a quiet debate inside the Pentagon over budget cuts. “I know there’s been a big debate within the Pentagon,” he said. “We hear about it, we recognize it.”
Ryan said he had called Dempsey to apologize, saying, “I wanted to give that point to him, which is that was not what I was attempting to say.”