Defense cuts appear likely as pressure grows to pass a debt deal

Defense cuts proposed by the White House are unlikely to keep a debt-ceiling deal from passing Congress, sources say.

As few as 30 House Republicans would likely consider voting against a debt-ceiling deal that cuts $300 billion from security spending, according to a GOP aide.

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The relatively small bloc of opposition to the level of defense cuts floated by the White House suggests the GOP’s traditional opposition to reducing military spending has taken a backseat to warding off tax increases. 

“Robust defense spending and lower taxes have been two hallmarks of the Republican Party for years,” one former GOP House staffer said. “And those two things are going to be in direct competition with one another” in the debt talks.

Given a choice between lopping funding for the military and increasing taxes — two options for reducing the deficit long seen as anathema to the party — most House Republicans seem ready to pull the lever against the Pentagon, if the cuts are in the White House range. 

“Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen quite clearly that the Republicans in the House are not uniformly wedded to high levels of defense spending,” said Gordon Adams, who ran defense and national security budgeting for the Clinton White House. “But Republicans are very much uniformly wedded to no tax increases. … I think they’ll ultimately come down on the side of no tax cuts.”

Defense sources say the fiscal-minded class of House freshmen has brought an openness to defense cuts that is pulling the GOP in a new direction.

“All it would take is for the number of freshmen that would vote for big defense cuts to get up past 70, to approach 80,” a defense source said, “and the traditional defense supporters will be screwed.”

During discussions over raising the debt ceiling, the White House has floated $300 billion in security spending cuts on top of $1 trillion in domestic cuts over a decade. 

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was clear last week that opposition to tax increases, and not defense cuts, was the reason he walked away from the negotiating table in the talks led by Vice President Biden. 

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz), another participant in the Biden talks, said Tuesday that Democrats “asked for a lot of defense cuts” in the negotiations that the GOP had not closed the door on them.

If a final debt-ceiling package raids the Pentagon coffers, some GOP hawks are unlikely to go down without a fight.

Defense insiders pointed to members like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and panel member Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) — a war veteran — as those who might defy their leadership and vote against a debt-ceiling accord due to big military cuts.

A former GOP aide said McKeon has a bloc of about 30 hawkish House members who likely would mull a “no” vote on a debt package featuring cuts equal to $300 billion over 10 years.

That bloc has been outspoken in opposition to President Obama’s deficit-paring proposal to trim national security spending by $400 billion over 12 years — a cut that has been pro-rated down to $300 billion over 10 years in the deficit talks.

They often note to reporters that outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates — with whom this bloc has had its battles — says reductions of that size “will require real cuts” that would have to “address force structure,” meaning people and platforms.

“Sure, they might jump up and down and make a lot of noise,” Adams said. “But it’s not clear to me that [leadership] would lose their votes.”

In an email to The Hill, Joe Kasper, Hunter’s spokesman, took a hard stance against Pentagon funding cuts.

“It’s hard to make the case for defense cuts during wartime. And it’s a bad idea to start cutting defense for the sake of cutting,” Kasper said.

“Defense is one of the pillars of the Republican platform,” said one hawkish GOP House aide. “I’d hate to face an election in 2012 having horse-traded away national security to pay for the president’s ballooning domestic spending.”

A pivotal moment in the fight over defense spending came in February, when the House GOP voted to kill the alternative engine for the F-22.

The measure to kill the second engine was supported by 110 House Republicans, including 47 freshmen. But 130 GOP members voted to keep the engine alive, including 40 freshmen.

More evidence of the split came weeks later when the House Budget Committee considered the budget from Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Ranking member Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) offered an amendment that called for security spending to be fully “on the table.”

Five Republicans disagreed and said they did not want to see defense spending cut further. Republican Reps. Ken Calvert (Calif.), Todd Akin (Mo.), Tom Cole (Okla.), James Lankford (Okla.) and Todd Young (Ind.) voted “no” on the Van Hollen amendment, but all the other Republicans, including Ryan, voted in favor.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has long been testing the limits of House GOP willingness to cut defense. He told The Hill this week that he sees more and more openness to trimming the military budget as the months go by.

He noted that one amendment he offered to the House 2011 continuing resolution, which cut an additional $18 million from defense, failed by a vote of 207-223 in February. But in May, Flake was able to win support for a $348 million cut in the National Defense Authorization Act for a military transfer fund. That vote was 269-151.

Flake said $300 billion over 10 years is “the minimum of what we can do, and we can go up from there.”

On the other hand, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation, which is opposed to any defense cuts that are not reinvested in the Pentagon, sees less evidence of freshmen wavering on defense.

An analysis by Heritage Action of the 2011 spending fight noted that the alternate engine was the only one of 13 defense-cutting amendments to pass on the House-passed continuing resolution.

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“An analysis of the voting patterns on those 13 votes found that the freshmen were not the ones leading the charge to cut defense within the GOP. There were just 14 Republicans willing to cut defense more than 50 percent of the time, and only one was a freshman,” the group found.

Liberal sources say the freshman defections shows the White House is shooting too low on defense in the debt-ceiling talks.

“I don’t think that $300 billion in spending cuts is either much of a cut or much of a concession,” said Rebecca Thiess, a policy analyst with the Economic Policy Institute.

Former Senate national security staffer Winslow Wheeler likewise said $300 billion is small, and noted it is much less than the cuts to security made by the president’s fiscal commission.

Obama, perhaps feeling the heat from liberals, in his Wednesday press conference hinted that cuts beyond the $400 billion he has previously outlined could be coming for the Pentagon.

Updated at 9:56 a.m.