By John T. Bennett - 09/12/11 04:56 PM EDT
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Monday, if forced to choose, he would support tax increases before further cuts to the Pentagon budget.
The hawkish Republican said he “would go for strengthening defense” if he must vote either for raising some taxes or shrinking the Pentagon’s budget beyond the $350 billion mandated by the August debt deal. But it is clear McKeon, like other Republicans, wants a special deficit-cutting congressional committee to focus on entitlement program cuts.
A McKeon staffer later said the chairman opposes both options under what his boss views as a “Sophie’s Choice” scenario. The California lawmaker said he never has voted for a tax increase.
McKeon told an audience at an American Enterprise Institute forum that “the military could not sustain” cuts beyond those mandated in the debt deal. That agreement would enforce another $600 billion in cuts on national security agency budgets if a congressional supercommittee fails to reach a deal on $1.2 trillion in federal cuts.
Of that amount, the Pentagon would be on the hook for about “50 percent,” or $300 billion through 2023, McKeon said.
Many in the Republican Party continue to leave open the possibility that additional Pentagon cuts might be necessary for the super panel to hit its target.
For instance, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Monday said he has yet to rule out supporting additional military spending cuts.
"I don’t think any of us want to see a sequester in the defense cuts at that level take hold. They are disproportionate in terms of what it does to the Pentagon," Cantor said. "But there’s no way you can defend every dollar and cent being spent at the Pentagon, just like you can't defend it somewhere else."
Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said GOP lawmakers who hail from districts with a robust military presence "still believe that if we’re going to have an opportunity to engage the president, we have to do so with everything on the table."
Asked if House Republican leaders share his zeal against more DoD cuts, McKeon said he believes they share his beliefs about a strong military. But, he added, “I’m not sure everyone shares my beliefs. … It’s my job to make sure [GOP leaders] understand the consequences” additional cuts would bring.
The HASC chairman said 13 freshmen Republicans on his panel, most of whom were swept into office on the Tea Party wave, also have indicated to him that they oppose more Pentagon cuts.
Those freshmen feel “enough is enough” after the Pentagon enacted modest reductions and then swallowed the $350 billion in cuts mandated by the debt deal, McKeon said.
The GOP freshmen also came to office to fight federal tax hikes, one reason why pro-defense lawmakers and industry officials are urging the supercommittee to take aim at entitlement programs.
“It’s time to focus our fiscal restraint on the driver of our debt,” McKeon said, “not the protector of our prosperity.”
New Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, almost immediately upon taking office this summer, warned the trigger cuts would be a “doomsday” scenario for the military.
Defense executives are slated to meet with Panetta this week to discuss the Pentagon budget situation, and will brief reporters on the same topic on Wednesday. Industry executives also have called for the supercommittee to take most the $1.2 trillion from entitlement programs.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) last week raised eyebrows when he threatened to quit the supercommittee if its members even bring up the idea of deeper cuts to the annual military budget, which has grown significantly since 9/11.
Pro-defense Democrats like Rep Adam Smith (D-Wash.), HASC ranking member, and Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) say the Pentagon budget must be on the table, as long as additional cuts are informed by a new national security strategy.
During a speech on Friday, Smith argued that the lone way for the supercommittee to reach the $1.2 trillion target is by proposing entitlement program cuts, new federal revenues and some additional national security spending reductions.
If the supercommittee opts against pursuing a mixed bag of cuts, the portion of the federal budget that includes the Pentagon would be "devastated," Smith said.
Smith has for months been blunt that federal entitlement programs will have to be reformed for Washington to get its fiscal house in order.
But Congress has failed to “get people ready” for changes to entitlement programs, Smith said.
“And that’s why Defense is last in line at a buffet that has run out of food,” Smith said.
Hawkish GOP lawmakers warn that the military would soon become a shell of its current self if forced to enact the $350 billion in reductions from the August debt deal and those that would be green-lighted if the special bipartisan panel fails.
More “cuts would open the door to aggression, as our ability to deter and respond to an attack would be severely crippled,” McKeon said.
Gordon Adams, who oversaw national security budgeting for the Clinton White House, says even if the Pentagon budget is pared by nearly a $1 trillion over a decade, America still would have the best-equipped and most lethal military in the world.
Russell Berman contributed to this report.
Russell Berman contributed to this story.
Updated at 3:16 p.m. and 4:58 p.m.