The House GOP is bluffing. There is absolutely no way they cut this baby in half.
House GOP thinks unthinkable on defense cuts
By DARREN SAMUELSOHN
2/5/13 4:35 AM EST
The Republican mantra for decades has been: cut NPR, EPA and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Now add the Pentagon to the list.
In the modern history of the Republican Party, it would have been unthinkable. The GOP is built on two core tenets — small government and big defense spending — and for decades, the two ideas co-existed peacefully. Republicans wanted to cut the federal budget — everywhere except the Pentagon. No more.
The reason: A new breed of conservatives in the House cares so much about cutting spending they’re willing to extend that to the budget for bullets and bombs, too — in this case, by letting $500 billion in across-the-board automatic budget cuts over 10 years take effect, alongside a similar number for domestic agencies.
“I’m reading what a lot of different members are saying, and I find there’s not as much opposition to sequestration as I thought there might be,” Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee in charge of the Pentagon’s purse strings, told POLITICO.
“I don’t think I have any real feeling for which direction this House is going, and this is the first time in a long time that I haven’t had a pretty good feel for it,” Young added.
It’s got defense hawks in the House on edge — and on the defensive. But the members of the next generation say their argument is straightforward: Of course they want a strong national defense, but spending is spending.
“What you’re hearing from some folks about the status of the sequester simply tells you that there’s a group of Republicans who are willing to look at the Defense Department equally with the other departments,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a sophomore who has been leading the campaign for spending cuts, including at the Pentagon.
“I think Republicans lose credibility when they say we have to look everywhere for savings except defense,” he added.
Republican Policy Committee Chairman James Lankford of Oklahoma said sequester isn’t his first choice. He’d rather shift cuts to domestic programs, but he knows that’s an idea Senate Democrats aren’t going to swallow.
“I haven’t done the head count, but I can tell you a large part is committed to saying we have to reduce spending. We’d rather do it another way. But if the only way it can be done is sequestration, then it has to be done,” said Lankford, a sophomore who quickly rose to the top ranks of Republican leadership.
Right now, bets are on the automatic cuts taking place. It would take a dramatic, last-minute action from the White House to prevent them.
And sequestration saber rattling is loud enough that the defense industry is taking notice. Pentagon brass, who had long insisted they weren’t planning for sequestration, outlined several short-term personnel measures in case Congress doesn’t turn off the automatic cuts by the March 1 deadline, including hiring freezes, voluntary early retirements and furloughs of up to 30 days.
The reasons for the GOP’s political shift are many: America is the world’s lone superpower, with its military might unchallenged. The nation — and even some Republicans — are weary of war, as President Barack Obama wound down the involvement in Iraq and is winding down the one in Afghanistan.
But first and foremost, some of these newly elected conservatives had the backing of the tea party — whose central tenet is cutting what it sees as runaway federal spending, wherever it is, and stopping an explosion of dangerous deficits and debt.
And that’s showing up on the House floor: House GOP floor votes in recent weeks suggest Speaker John Boehner won’t be catching many breaks as he works with an unruly conference in search of big cuts on the big-ticket fiscal questions of the day, including sequestration, increasing the nation’s $16.4 trillion borrowing limit and the expiration of the continuing resolution at the end of March.
For example, 157 Republicans voted for Mulvaney’s amendment to the Hurricane Sandy relief bill that would have slashed all government spending, including the Pentagon’s, as a budget offset. (The amendment failed thanks to opposition from Democrats and 71 Republicans.)
The first House roll call of the 113th Congress — to provide $9.7 billion in flood insurance for Sandy victims — garnered 67 “no” votes. Nearly half came from freshman and sophomore Republicans.
Even defense hawks aren’t immune to registering their objections over how GOP leaders have handled the budget and tax negotiations with the Obama White House. The last-minute fiscal cliff deal that passed last month — extending George W. Bush-era tax cuts and postponing sequestration until March — won the support of just 10 of the 35 Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee.
Among House GOP lawmakers known as Pentagon stalwarts, several said they were alarmed by floor vote defections and the rhetoric from fellow Republicans. They recognize they’re the ones playing defense now on the military budget.
“There are people that think we need to cut more,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) acknowledged in an interview.
McKeon said he’s been pushing back against budget hawks in the GOP conference by pointing to the nearly $600 billion in spending cuts that the Pentagon has already absorbed in recent years — and that’s before sequestration would even begin.
Even if budget hawks were to get their way, McKeon added, the sequestration cuts slated to hit the Pentagon and the rest of the federal budget in March — stretched out over a decade — won’t make a dent against the deficit.
“At a time when China is increasing their defense spending and we’re having all these hot spots and troubles around the world, I’m thinking that really people don’t all see the whole big picture and don’t understand that if you totally eliminated the Defense Department, totally eliminated federal spending on education, on transportation, on parks, on everything that we vote on, if you eliminate all discretionary budgets, we’d still be running a deficit of a half-trillion dollars a year,” he said.
But that money does make a difference for the Defense Department and its ever-changing mission, including new threats in Africa. McKeon said he’s telling Republicans that lives are at stake if the sequestration spending cuts go forward.
“The military is going to be asked to do more with less. Every time we do that, every time we cut the military back in our history going into World War II, and to Korea and to Vietnam, we lost people because we had cut back too much, and I don’t want to see that happen,” he said.
Not all House GOP freshmen say they would support voting to let the automatic Pentagon cuts as currently constituted go forward.
“Overall, we have to save money in the budget, but sequestration is not the way to do it,” said Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a Navy pilot and Armed Services Committee member who joined eight other Republicans last month voting against Boehner’s election as speaker. “Sequestration needs to be undone. And I’m looking forward to working on this committee to make sure that it gets undone.”
“I’d rather we manage it in more of an intelligent fashion than just say we’re cutting it,” added Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq.
But some members are ready to talk about slashing the defense budget.
“I think there’s spending that can be taken out of all departments,” said freshman Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.). “And I’ve talked to people from the Pentagon. There’s just areas that, yeah, we can pull back a little more, even though they did their $470 billion already. They said it hurt, but we possibly could.”
Asked where he envisioned military cuts, Yoho replied “some of the bases may need to be relooked at.”
Obama initially signed off on sequestration figuring the Pentagon cuts would be so painful that they’d force Republicans to the bargaining table to negate them. But even that strategy has backfired because of the budget hawks.
Now, voicing support for sequestration to go forward has “become the chief threat that Republicans can employ” while Obama and Boehner spar over increasing the debt limit and government spending, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former defense aide to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“It makes conservatives think sequestration is the best they’ll get, therefore they’ll take it now,” she said.
“This is baked in. It’s law,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, the conservative advocacy group that’s been scoring Republican members on their recent spending votes.
Jim Walsh, a former New York GOP congressman who chaired an Appropriations panel responsible for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the number of House GOP members suggesting defense cuts is unprecedented in recent history. “I never experienced that in my 20 years, even from the hawkest of the budget hawks,” he said.
Todd Harrison, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, said sequestration has the added bonus of being vague enough that lawmakers who don’t try to block it could avoid taking a political hit if the across-the-board cuts end up cutting programs in their district.
“Everyone can say they don’t like it,” he said, “and still not have their fingerprints on specific cuts.”