Senate Defense hawks pressure Boehner on Pentagon spending

Senate Defense hawks pressure Boehner on Pentagon spending

Senators from both parties who want to do away with a ceiling on Pentagon spending are coalescing around building to a strong vote in the Senate that might put pressure on the House to take action.

Pro-defense lawmakers think there’s a much better chance of getting the Senate to increase defense spending.

A flurry of deal-making in the last few weeks has bolstered hopes, and reminded senators of their ability to reach across the aisle. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also is viewed as willing to defer to his chairmen — if they have a deal.

In stark contrast, raising spending caps is not seen as a priority for Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFreedom Caucus members see openings in leadership Five GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups MORE (R-Ohio), who also must watch out for a right flank that is passionate about cutting spending.

“He says, ‘You got to cut spending, you got to cut spending.’ He’s not only not enthusiastic, he’s fundamentally opposed. That’s a problem,” one Republican senator said of Boehner.

Boehner said Friday that he does not want to exceed the spending ceilings set by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which implemented automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.

The Pentagon and its allies in Congress are desperate to remove those ceilings. The White House is also willing to lift them, provided ceilings are also raised or eliminated on domestic spending.

Boehner is willing to increase defense funding, but he wants total spending number to remain within the limits set by the BCA. That would make it tough to reach a deal with the White House. .

“We’re going to attempt to work to increase the defense numbers without breaking the Budget Control Act,” he said Friday on Fox Business Network. “You know, there’s a reason why the deficit was half of what it was four years ago, and that’s because we insisted on cutting spending in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling.”

Outside groups will also be weighing in to pressure Boehner to hold firm.

“The sequester/cap is the major accomplishment of the GOP House/Senate and tea party,” anti-tax activist Grover Norquist told The Hill in an email. “Why would anyone give it up. Leadership of House and Senate would be sacrificing their leverage.”

Senate Republicans argue the GOP must agree to increase non-defense domestic spending to build enough bipartisan support for a broader deal to stave off steep defense cuts.

“I don’t think you’re going to get defense relief without dealing somehow with non-defense. It’s going to take Democratic buy in to get this done. You’re not going to fix sequestration without some Democratic participation in the Senate,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSunday shows preview: Questions linger over Trump-Putin summit Soccer ball Putin gifted to Trump gets routine security screening Graham: Biggest problem is Trump ‘believes meddling equals collusion’ MORE (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed Services Committee who is running for president as a defense hawk.

If a bipartisan deal can be reached in the Senate, and then is approved with a strong vote, Graham and others hope Boehner and the House might accept it.

“If there was a deal then obviously he wouldn’t obstruct it. But he’s not calling people in and saying, ‘Hey you got to work something out,’” said a GOP senator.

The Senate talks are in the “embryonic” stage, but participants expect they will gain steam throughout the year as attention is focused on the appropriations process. 

Three members of the Democratic leadership, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Democratic Policy and Communications Center Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), and Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.), have begun to reach out to GOP colleagues to find potential negotiating partners. 

“I’m interested in it. I don’t know if we can be successful. It’s another example where it can only work if Republicans join Democrats,” Durbin told The Hill.

A spokesman for Murray said she is “certainly always interested in talking to Republicans about ways to build on the bipartisan budget deal and work together to replace the automatic cuts as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators on the Budget and Armed Services panel are having their own conversations. The groups includes Sens. Graham, Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Angus King (Maine), an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

The group won adoptions in the Senate budget of an amendment that calls for replacing sequester cuts in defense and non-defense accounts with a package reforming mandatory programs, cutting discretionary spending and ending niche tax breaks.

Their next goal is to include similar language in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The group has a powerful ally in Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Memo: Summit fallout hits White House Graham: Biggest problem is Trump ‘believes meddling equals collusion’ Obama, Bush veterans dismiss Trump-Putin interpreter subpoena MORE (R-Ariz.), who will have a lot of say in what is included in the NDAA.

McCain is an outspoken critic of the pending defense cuts and will be central to striking a broader deal to lift the BCA caps.

“The good news is there’s becoming greater and greater recognition of the need for it,” he said. “I’ve been approached by several people asking, ‘Would you be interested in talks for Ryan-Murray II,’ and I’ve said of course I would be.”

The BCA limits defense spending at $523 billion for fiscal year 2016. McCain stated in a February letter to the Senate Budget Committee that defense discretionary budget authority should be raised to $577 billion.

A GOP aide said at the very least McCain wants it raised to the number recommended by Obama, $561 billion.

Senators hope to craft legislation similar to the 2013 budget deal negotiated by Murray, then the chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), her House counterpart.

The Murray-Ryan deal reduced sequestration by $63 billion spread evenly between defense and non-defense programs in 2014 and 2015.