By Erik Wasson and Jeremy Herb - 08/31/13 10:00 AM EDT
U.S. military action in Syria could give the White House an advantage in the looming fiscal showdown with congressional Republicans, according to defense and budget experts.
They said the Syria crisis could boost calls by President Obama and defense hawks to reverse the automatic spending cuts to the Pentagon known as sequestration.
“I think it has the possibility of advancing fiscal talks, I really do,” he said.
He argued that if strikes against Syria are launched, it will be “very, very difficult to insist” on the defense sequester.
“Under those circumstances, I can see a [2014 continuing resolution] that would contain full funding for defense,” he said.
The White House has been banking on defense hawks within the GOP breaking ranks with Tea Party conservatives and embracing a debt deal that includes some higher taxes and reverses cuts to domestic programs.
Their hope is that the cuts to the Pentagon will grow so painful, some defense-minded lawmakers will accept more tax revenue as part of a deal to end the defense cuts.
That effort needs a shot in the arm.
Obama faced a setback this week when secretive White House debt talks with Senate GOP centrists were suspended indefinitely over the issue of new taxes. Experts also cautioned that for the Syrian action to move the fiscal goalposts, they will need to be successful and popular with the public.
The stakes for the Pentagon are high.
In March, the defense budget was automatically cut by about $37 billion. Because Congress has been unable to agree on a budget, the Pentagon faces another $52 billion in cuts in the next fiscal year that begins in October.
The link between the sequester and Syria is already being made.
Sen. Jim InhofeJames InhofeDemocrats blast GOP for ‘sabotaging’ House waterways bill GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase Week ahead: Flint aid fight shifts to House MORE (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Panel, issued a press release saying the U.S. cannot afford to go to war in Syria given the ongoing effects of defense sequestration.
“I cannot support military action in Syria unless the president presents to Congress his broader strategy in the region that addresses our national security interests and the budget to support it,” Inhofe said. “[Obama] has underfunded overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund, reduced base defense budget, and put into motion sequestration. Our military has no money left.”
Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who wants the sequester maintained, said linking military action in Syria to the sequester will backfire, in part because the public doesn’t want to be involved in a fight with that country.
“I think people will try to misuse [Syria], and it will backfire very badly,” he said.
“The country doesn’t want them to do much or anything. There is not a lot of demand for something big and expensive.”
But Michael Herson, the president of American Defense International, a defense lobbying firm, said military action in Syria could boost the arguments of Sens. John McCainJohn McCainSenate rivals gear up for debates McCain opponent releases new ad hitting his record Why is the election so close? Experts say it's all in your head MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Senators buck spending bill over Export-Import Bank Pelosi pans latest GOP stopgap spending offer MORE (R-S.C.), who both want to reverse the sequester.
Both senators support military action against Syria, though they and the White House oppose having U.S. boots on the ground.
“This brings to light that hey, the world is still a dangerous place, and we’re gong to have to have a military that can respond anywhere and anytime, and that costs money,” said Herson.
Dan Stohr, a spokesman for the Aerospace Industries Association, echoed Herson’s argument.
“It is absolutely true that situations like Syria and Egypt demonstrate the world is still very much a dangerous place. U.S. national security interests are at risk every day. So sequestration really is the wrong answer for addressing those national security concerns,” Stohr said.
So far, the White House has not given any indication it will seek a defense spending increase just for the Syria mission, congressional aides said Friday.
But the White House has included top appropriators in its briefings this week and Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerRepublican Study Committee elders back Harris for chairman Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare The disorderly order of presidential succession MORE (R-Ohio) included a question about additional spending in a letter to the president.
If a supplemental is requested it could become the vehicle for a bigger sequester deal, a House aide suggested.
Experts cautioned that Syria’s relevance to the budget debate may be more symbolic that substantive given its scope.
“Syria works best against sequestration as a symbol. The moment people start looking at the actual costs or the actual operation it becomes a double-edged sword,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute who consults with several defense companies.
Pentagon expert Gordon Adams of American University predicted congressional defense hawks would use the conflict to argue against the sequester. But he said the fight Obama appears to be contemplating won’t cost that much.
Adams estimated a narrow strike could cost $100 million, far less than the $1 billion Libya operation. And the issue would do nothing to make it easier for the two sides to address major differences over taxes and entitlement spending, he said.
“I have no doubt they are going to play every string on the violin,” he said, but added the Syria fight “is a pretty slender thread on which to hang a budget deal.”