Defense hawks back GOP budget

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Republican defense hawks said Wednesday they expected to fall in line behind the House budget, which would likely give GOP leaders the breathing room they need to pass another fiscal framework. 

Senior Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee had declined to endorse the first budget from Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), over concerns that Congress would have to find offsets for a portion of the $90 billion in extra defense spending that is set aside in an account for wars.

But defense hawks said Wednesday that Price had given them assurances that lawmakers wouldn’t have to find a way to pay for any of those funds.

That led lawmakers such as Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who organized a letter of 70 House Republicans saying they couldn’t back a proposal with more robust defense spending, to say they get could on board with the budget. 

Other Armed Services members, like Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Reps. Trent FranksTrent FranksSpeaker Ryan tries new Trump strategy: Ignore him 27 days before elections, GOP at war with itself Five things to watch for at IRS impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ariz.), Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), also sounded more confident about backing the budget. 

“At first I thought we were in for a train wreck of spectacular dimensions,” Franks said, before praising Price for heeding the hawks’ concerns. “And somehow he was able to pull it all together.”

House Republicans appear to still have plenty of obstacles to hurdle before a budget vote.

Budget Committee Republicans and their staff hadn't said for much of Wednesday whether they’d reached a deal to assuage the concerns of defense hawks. The Budget panel is currently marking up the GOP budget, which overlaps significantly with previous efforts from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in a process that could wrap up Wednesday night.

By late Wednesday, Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), the Budget panel's vice chairman, had prepared an amendment that would strip away the need to offset any of the extra defense spending, and would even add an extra $2 billion to the offshore fund. 

But the Budget Committee recessed near midnight Wednesday night without considering the amendment, and a Democratic aide said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had gone to lobby wary Republicans. It was unclear when the committee would return to continue considering its budget, but sending the framework to the House floor without the defense amendment would once again put the votes of defense hawks at risk.

Defense hawks also said Wednesday that they still had questions about whether the Pentagon would have enough flexibility under the offshore war funds, which face certain limits on how they can be spent. For instance, the war funding could be unavailable for the first few months of a fiscal year, meaning it could be a problematic replacement for base defense spending.

“It’s amazing that we’re doing this at this late hour,” Turner said, adding that he was speaking with senior GOP appropriators about how the so-called overseas contingency operations funds (OCO) could be used. 

“But it is incredibly important, so I’m certainly hopeful that this issue is going to be addressed as it needs to be,” Turner said, adding: “This is fluid.”

The debate over defense funding is likely to continue well past next week, even if the House passes its budget.

GOP leaders in both chambers want the House and Senate to be able to settle the differences between their budgets, which would allow Republicans to target President Obama’s healthcare law through the reconciliation process. 

But the Senate budget, released Wednesday by Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), would only authorize $58 billion in funding for offshore wars, leaving a more than $30 billion difference that Republicans acknowledge would be tough to bridge. 

Enzi’s budget would also include a deficit-neutral reserve fund that would potentially allow for more defense spending, but Senate hawks like Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) blasted that idea. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Wednesday that he would likely seek to amend the Senate budget to raise the OCO account to $90 billion.

House Republicans passed a budget crafted by Ryan each of the last four years, and will have more of a cushion than ever when Price’s effort hits the floor next week. 

Republicans can lose up to 28 of their own members and still pass the budget, assuming all congressmen vote and no Democrats back Price’s proposal. That would require 217 Republicans to back the bill.

Still, House vote counters have expressed concern that they’d be able to get their budget across the finish line, especially given the objections of the defense hawks.

“We’re not there yet, but we’re close,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio). “I don’t even want to aspire to get to 220 or 230. Let’s just pass it.”

With a smaller majority last year, the House GOP budget was approved with 219 votes and 12 Republicans defecting.

Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and his chief deputy, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), started reaching out to GOP Budget Committee members about whether a proposal to appease defense hawks could pass the panel even before Price kicked off his budget mark-up, according to aides. Price had downplayed the chances that a proposal to scrap the need for offsets for the roughly $20 billion would pass the committee, aides added.

 “If there is a problem at the committee level, the problem could manifest itself on the floor as well,” a Scalise aide said before the Budget Committee mark-up stalled Wednesday.

After a series of floor defeats this year, members of Scalise’s whip team have also worried that they would get the blame for a budget defeat, even if Price and defense hawks weren’t able to find common ground on security spending. 

But as House Republicans have found with other issues, finding a way to ease the concerns of one group can frequently spark a problem with other members of their conference.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), for instance, said he was struggling with the idea of ensuring even more defense spending above the caps set by the 2011 measure that raised the debt ceiling.

“We’re breaking the law,” Mulvaney told reporters. “If you’re using the OCO money to plus up the defense budget, you’re breaking the law – not the letter, but the spirit.”

Alexander Bolton, Vicki Needham and Rebecca Shabad contributed.

Updated at 12:34 a.m. Thursday.