Liberal Dems' battle to cut defense spending reaches a turning point

A growing number of centrist Democrats say they’re open to trimming Pentagon spending in the face of record budget deficits and mounting public debt.


Liberal Democrats for years have called for cuts to the massive defense budget to no avail. Even after Democrats regained control of Congress in 2007, their few attempts at reining in defense spending have proven futile, partly because of opposition from centrist Democrats hawkish on defense issues.

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Now that opposition is softening amid rising concern about the nation's fiscal future and the fact that defense makes up more than half the country’s discretionary spending.

“We are going to have to adopt the philosophy that nothing can be off the table,” said Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), one of the first members of the class of 2008 to be admitted into the Blue Dog Coalition. “And that is increasingly becoming the dominant view of the Blue Dogs.”

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), a centrist who is the House's top defense appropriator, believes his panel can reduce the Pentagon's budget top line somewhat without affecting military readiness, according to Dicks's chief of staff, George Behan.

“He expects that the Defense subcommittee will be recommending a bill that represents a modest reduction from the amount requested by the president,” Behan said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) put the once-sacrosanct defense budget on the chopping block this week by stating that Pentagon spending cannot be excluded from deficit-reduction talks. In prior years, such a floated proposal would have been shot down immediately. But it's still airborne.

“Any conversation about the deficit that leaves out defense spending is seriously flawed before it begins,” Hoyer said Tuesday in his speech at the progressive Third Way think tank.

While Republicans hit Hoyer hard for saying Democrats would not produce a budget, they stopped short of criticizing his call for defense budget cuts. While some Republicans will certainly balk at cutting the Pentagon's budget, others might be reticent because cutting government spending is a top priority of the Tea Party movement.

Hoyer, meanwhile, is ready to double down.

According to aides, the majority leader will reiterate his point Monday to a potentially less receptive audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he will not shy away from declaring that Congress has no choice but to stop thinking about defense spending as untouchable.

Hoyer has given no details of how much he thinks the defense budget should be cut or by when. But he lavished praise on Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s initiative to free up approximately $100 billion — or roughly one-sixth — of the Pentagon’s budget through the elimination of costly and unnecessary weapons systems, trimming the Pentagon’s bureaucracy, and the reduction of healthcare costs.

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From the Pentagon’s perspective, however, Gates’s proposal is an effort to find savings in order to spend the Pentagon’s annual $550 billion or so more effectively.

While Hoyer credited Gates for his willingness to fight Congress, if necessary, to prevent spending on additional C-17 cargo planes and an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, he made no mention of the nearly $1 trillion in cuts to the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade that was recommended by a panel commissioned by one of the House’s leading liberals, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

Just two weeks ago the Sustainable Defense Task Force, a commission of scholars from a broad ideological spectrum appointed by Frank, the House Financial Services Committee chairman, laid out a plan for saving the federal government $960 billion between 2011 and 2020, all from defense.

Still, Hoyer’s willingness even to consider defense spending in the same way many liberals do has already ruffled the feathers of at least a few of the majority leader’s strongest allies in the Democratic Caucus.

“No,” Blue Dog Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) responded when asked if he agreed with Hoyer’s stance on the defense budget.

“A lot of the things he said I was not in agreement with,” Altmire said. “The first thing we need to look at are cuts to social programs.”

The deficit appears to have put all Democrats on a path of mutually assured frustration for the foreseeable future.

Blue Dogs, who were demanding a 2 percent cut to all non-defense discretionary spending for at least three years, blocked a budget blueprint that contained anything less. But while the one-year budget “enforcement resolution” that Blue Dogs and members of the Progressive Caucus finally agreed to will shave $7 billion off the president’s 2011 spending request, defense programs will not necessarily be exempt.

After taking a stand against even spending freezes on everything not tied to national security, Minnick said more Blue Dogs were coming around to the notion that defense could not be considered a “sacred cow” by default.

“We are talking about these issues with increasing seriousness,” he said.

And Minnick said conservative Democrats have already had discussions about paying for the Afghanistan war beyond next year.

“These aren’t emergencies anymore,” Minnick said. “There’s time to plan for them. These are predictable expenditures.”