The last time the active-duty Army was below 500,000 was in 2005, when it stood at 492,000. Its post-World War II low was 480,000 in 2001, according to historical tables provided by the Army. In 1940 the Army had 267,000 active-duty members, and it surged to 1.46 million the following year as the U.S. approached entry into World War II.
In Congress, the issue could come up as early as Tuesday when the Senate Armed Services Committee considers the nominations of six senior Pentagon officials, including a new deputy secretary of defense.
Both parties are divided on defense funding levels. GOP hawks don't see eye-to-eye with some tea party supporters and fiscal conservatives who say all sectors of federal spending must be reined in. For every Democrat supporting the Obama administration, there's another in a military-heavy district or state worried about the fallout.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the House Armed Services Committee's top Democrat, acknowledged the difficult financial constraints facing the Pentagon. Congress authorized across-the-board spending cuts that went into effect last year and were only eased somewhat by a budget agreement two months ago.
"Under these conditions, our military leaders are doing their best to put forward a budget that provides national security," Smith said
His Senate counterpart, Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, said he opposed all proposed cuts. "We have been cutting and cutting for the last five years," he said.
Polls show the American public split. Republican voters are more likely to say defense spending is too low while Democratic voters are more likely to say it's too high.
Congress' recent behavior suggests a tough fight ahead for the administration.
Earlier this month, the Senate voted 95-3 and the House 326-90 to restore full cost-of-living pension increases for younger military retirees just two months after the modest cut was enacted.
Many prominent deficit hawks joined in the reversal, highlighting the difficulty of making cuts that affect veterans in an election year and the chronic challenge facing lawmakers as they try to curtail spending.
And Senate Democrats are now trying to push through an expanded health and education bill for veterans that would cost $21 billion over the coming decade.
Beyond military pay, the Obama administration has struggled to cut costs by eliminating weapons that mean money and jobs where they are produced, based and serviced.
It failed two years ago to shut down the Air Force's Global Hawk, a high-altitude unmanned aircraft the Pentagon said wasn't cost-effective. The military now supports the plane, which is built in McKeon's district.