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Whither robust, Reagan-style defense budgets?

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 1/13/2023 Jamie McIntyre
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Depending on which Republican voices you listen to, the prospect of dealing the Pentagon a massive budget cut next year is either definitely on the table or totally out of the question.

The rhetorical dissonance stems from the ambiguity of the commitments House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) did or didn’t make to secure the last few votes needed to push him over the top in his contentious 15-round bid to claim the chamber's top job.

“There are still some questions that I think many of us have about what side deals may or may not have been made. What handshakes were made,” said Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) several days after the early morning vote on Jan. 7.

Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL), a freshman lawmaker who was one of the 20 conservative House members negotiating with McCarthy, said that “in no way, shape or form was defense ever brought up” as part of the speaker's informal and still undisclosed side agreement with the holdouts.

But Luna said McCarthy did pledge to trim roughly $132 billion in discretionary spending from the current $1.7 trillion-dollar federal budget, of which fully half goes to the Pentagon.

And like McCarthy himself, who said last year there should be “no blank check” to Ukraine in military assistance to thwart Russia's aggression, Luna told Fox News's Neil Cavuto she “absolutely” believes there is room to cut military assistance to Ukraine. Total military aid to Ukraine in its nearly yearlong defensive war against Russia is over $25 billion and counting.

“I think that we have gone above and beyond. And, right now, I'm more concerned about the American people and ensuring that we're taking care of here at home,” said Luna, an Air Force veteran elected in 2022 to represent Florida's new 13th Congressional District, covering part of St. Petersburg and its suburbs.

Count Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the new House Judiciary Committee chairman and a McCarthy ally, among those who think there are plenty of places to shrink the $858 billion defense budget.

“The ratio of general officers to enlisted individuals now is so out of whack from where it used to be in our military,” Jordan said on Fox News Sunday.

Jordan added, “Maybe if we would focus our military spending on the soldiers and not having so many generals … and maybe focus on getting rid of all the woke policies in our military.”

That's a sharp turn away from traditional Republican support for larger military budgets. Particularly those pushed for and enacted by the late President Ronald Reagan during his 1981-89 White House tenure, part of a "peace through strength" approach many cite as crucial in the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse.

“We've got a $32 trillion debt. Everything has to be on the table,” said Jordan, alluding to the additional billions to pay for the war in Ukraine. “Frankly, we better look at the money we send to Ukraine as well and say, how can we best spend the money to protect America?"

Upon hearing the $132 billion target for budget reduction, Democrats quickly did the math and calculated an across-the-board cut would amount to an 8% reduction in discretionary spending. If defense spending is truly exempted, it would require a draconian 17% cut, including slashing the Veterans Administration, which is funded separately from the Defense Department.

“They would then leave veterans in the lurch, taking the veterans programs back to 2022, and would shortchange VA medical care by at least $31 billion,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, and the spending panel's chairwoman from 2021-23.

Establishment Republicans argue the threat to the Pentagon’s bottom line is overblown, given there remains a solid bipartisan pro-defense majority in both chambers. As evidenced by the $45 billion added to the Pentagon’s budget for this fiscal year above what President Joe Biden's administration requested.

“Anyone suggesting this [rules] package cuts defense spending is ignoring the math: There are not 218 members that support defense cuts, and any budget resolution that tries to do so will fail,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) on Jan. 9 after the passage of the House rules package for the 118th Congress.

“Remember, nothing outside of the rules package binds anybody,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD) said on CNN about a so-called secret addendum that may or may not have touched on defense spending levels.

“Kevin McCarthy doesn't have my vote card. McCarthy doesn't have anybody else’s vote card. This addendum is just really him trying to tell members that he'll try to do what he can to build unity,” said Johnson, chairman of the centrist-conservative-leaning House Main Street Caucus.

While it’s true the hard-right faction in the House lacks the votes to impose major cuts in defense spending, the fractious vote for speaker demonstrated as few as five members can block legislation that does not enjoy Democratic support.

And if the Republicans hang together in the House, where they have what's an effective 222-213 edge, with 218, votes they can defeat any measure proposed by the Democrats.

It’s a recipe for turning partisan votes into a high-stakes game of chicken.

While the hardcore five who initially opposed McCarthy’s bid to be speaker — Reps. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Bob Good (R-VA), Ralph Norman (R-SC), and Matt Rosendale (R-MT) and the 15 members who aligned with them — are a minority within the Republican’s slim House majority, many have vowed to use the two tactics available to them to hold the Congress hostage to their demands. That includes the threat of a government shutdown in October when the new fiscal year begins. And more significantly, blocking an increase in the debt ceiling later this year, which would cause the U.S. government to default on its debts and likely roil global financial markets.

“The real test for us will be when the debt ceiling situation arises when we reach the debt limit. We have got to have the willingness to go to the mat over that to force cuts in spending to put us on a path to fiscal responsibility,” said Good in a recent appearance on Fox.

“We have got to be willing to use that as leverage, quite frankly, the same way that we would never have achieved the historic changes to the rules to change how Congress operates unless we were willing to defeat the speaker,” Good added.

House Democrats said that amounts to irresponsible governance.

“The debt ceiling should not ever be something we play around with. It is too dangerous,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA), incoming ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “This country has been able to get through and weather government shutdowns. We would not be able to weather a compromise in the full faith and credit of the United States. It would cripple not only the U.S. economy but the world economy.”

The passage by House Republicans of a measure defunding the 87,000 IRS employees as one of their first is an object lesson in the limits of power when a party barely controls one chamber of Congress.

While allowing McCarthy and his fellow House Republicans to crow about fulfilling a campaign promise, the cold hard truth is that the bill has no future. It cannot pass the Democratic-controlled Senate, and would never be signed by Biden.

One option to get a bill passed without bipartisan support is to attach it as an amendment to unrelated, must-pass legislation. But under the new House rules, McCarthy has vowed only to pass single-issue bills, which would foreclose the standard end-around maneuver.

“Appropriations bills are must-pass bills. They require bipartisan, bicameral agreement,” DeLauro said. “It appears, quite honestly, that Republicans, they don't understand this process.”

That leaves House Republicans the “nuclear option” of gridlock as leverage to pass any bill that does not enjoy some measure of bipartisan support. The problem with legislative nuclear options is that, as with nuclear weapons, they tend to result in a lot of collateral damage.


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Tags: News, National Security, Congress, Kevin McCarthy, House Republicans, Debt Ceiling, Government Shutdown, Defense Spending, Pentagon, Military, Veterans Affairs

Original Author: Jamie McIntyre

Original Location: Whither robust, Reagan-style defense budgets?


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