Veteran Republicans fear Tea Party, liberals will unite to cut defense

Some House Republicans fear that a new coalition is forming between Tea Party-backed GOP freshmen and liberal Democrats to slash funding for the Pentagon.  

Congressional sources told The Hill that some House Republicans are concerned that the party’s new crop of fiscal hawks will vote to cut big-ticket defense programs without considering the consequences. 

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Their fears seemed to be confirmed last Wednesday when most freshman Republicans joined liberal Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) to strip $450 million for an alternate engine for the F-35.

Several aides said GOP veterans were shocked that some Tea Party-affiliated members were unaware that work on the second engine benefits their districts.

Amid the jockeying for votes, lawmakers and aides said they saw the freshman class focused primarily on removing billions from the federal budget without asking many questions about the F-35 engine program. 

“One thing we noticed during the alternate engine debate was the new members just did not know about the nuances of the program — they were not informed about the history of the debate,” said one House GOP aide. “And we didn’t see an effort to try and learn during the [continuing resolution (CR)] debate.”

Armed Services Committee member Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) told The Hill last Wednesday that he had reached out to several freshmen about an amendment to the CR offered by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) that would strip $450 million in 2011 funds meant for the second engine.

“It was pretty obvious they didn’t really know about the program,” Hunter said in a brief interview. “They listened, but it is was clear that most of them are most interested in cutting the budget.”

Hours after Hunter’s comments, the full House voted last Wednesday to strip funding for the F-35 alternate engine from a 2011 defense spending measure.

Only a handful of new GOP members voted to keep funding for the controversial effort alive. More than 70 new Republicans sided with Rooney and fellow Tea Party-affiliated Reps. Tim Griffin of Arkansas and Robert Dold of Illinois to vote against the engine funding.

“Spending an astounding $2.5 billion on a program that is unwanted and unnecessary is a violation of the trust the American people have placed in their congressional representatives. This is an easy budget cut that needs to be implemented quickly,” Dold said in a statement. “The taxpayers are fed up with their money being spent in this manner.”

During debate over the Rooney amendment on the House floor, new members and critics of the second-engine effort largely echoed Dold. 

Advocates for the Rolls-Royce/General Electric power plant, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), argued that the program would generate savings down the road while also providing a needed alternative to the fighter’s primary engine, which is being developed by Pratt & Whitney. Alternate engine supporters repeatedly noted the Pratt engine has been plagued by developmental problems and schedule delays. 

Several aides to long-serving GOP Armed Services Committee members said their bosses are getting frustrated at the new Republican faction’s zeal for slashing the budget deficit.

“We all agree that cutting spending and getting the deficit under control is the priority,” said another House GOP aide. “But members who have been here awhile and who have worked hard on defense issues wish they would educate themselves before voting.”

But it appears many cared more about freeing up $450 million in 2012 funds to apply to deficit-reduction efforts.

Asked last week how Armed Services Committee Republican leaders would deal with the new budget hawks, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the Strategic Forces subcommittee chairman, told The Hill all defense cuts should be made carefully.

“We saw it with the Patriot Act vote. We saw it with the second engine vote,” the first House GOP aide said. “If they see something and are not sure what it is, they’re going to vote against it. That’s why they’re here in the first place.”

Hunter and GOP aides said most new members hold their cards close during private sessions, signaling little about where they stand on many Pentagon programs and the ongoing debate about overall spending levels.

House Armed Services Committee leaders and aides are still trying to determine where the panel’s new GOP members will come down on a list of defense-related issues, said Josh Holly, the top Armed Services spokesman. 

New members of that panel so far have been “all over the place,” Holly said. 

GOP aides are looking for any signs that the new Tea Party members could join forces with liberal anti-war Democrats to force weapons program cuts and defense budget reductions, congressional sources said.

What’s more, Pentagon and industry officials have been trying for months to understand the Tea Party freshmen and how they will alter Pentagon budgeting and weapons program plans.

“There is no question many freshmen were elected with reducing the deficit as job one,” Marion Blakey, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), told reporters last month. “We are really engaging on this.”

Few of the new GOP members spent time during the campaign staking out clear stances on defense issues, leaving weapons manufacturers largely scratching their heads about how much support to expect from them. AIA and defense companies have been busy meeting new members, trying to garner their support.

“The defense industry doesn’t know what to make of the Tea Party,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “It is accustomed to dealing with politicians motivated mainly by the desire to get reelected. The notion of legislators driven solely by an ideological agenda is hard to assimilate.”