McCain to play pivotal role in defense fight

McCain to play pivotal role in defense fight
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Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainVeterans group to hand out USS John McCain T-shirts for July 4 on the National Mall Will we ever have another veteran as president? Meghan McCain clashes with Joy Behar as the 'sacrificial Republican' on 'The View' MORE is the pivotal figure in a fall fight between House and Senate Republicans over defense spending.

GOP defense hawks, who argue the military is facing a readiness crisis under budget caps known as sequestration, are fighting for an $18 billion increase in defense spending.


The only way that hike is going to become law, however, is if the GOP agrees to demands from Democrats and the White House that a hike in defense spending is matched with an equal increase in domestic discretionary spending.

And that’s a problem for Republican budget hawks, who want to curtail spending, especially in an election year.

“The fundamental challenge for Republicans is that many of them both want a higher defense budget, but they also want to rein in the total amount of federal spending,” said Justin Johnson, a defense budget expert at The Heritage Foundation.

McCain is right in the middle of the battle.

A defense hawk and advocate for raising military spending, McCain as the Senate’s Armed Services Committee chairman refrained from adding more money in the Senate’s defense policy bill.

The House-passed version of the bill would authorize $23 billion from a war fund to be used for base budget items. That’s $18 billion more than in the Senate-passed version of the bill, which follows the White House’s budget request and the 2015 budget agreement.

There’s a similar split between the House and Senate versions of a defense spending bill.

It’s uncertain whether McCain will fight for the Senate version or concede to the House version.

In a statement to The Hill, McCain spokesman Dustin Walker indicated support for an increase above the 2015 deal.

“Arbitrary caps on defense spending in the Budget Control Act and the Bipartisan Budget Act have left each of our military services underfunded, undersized, and unready to meet current and future threats,” Walker said. “As Chairman McCain has emphasized, this debate is not just about a topline number. It’s about returning to a strategy-driven defense budget that our troops deserve.”

But, he added, “Chairman McCain strongly believes that defense cannot and should not be exempt from fiscal responsibility. That’s why in last two Senate [National Defense Authorization Acts], Chairman McCain led the push to eliminate billions in wasteful and excessive spending and reform the way the Pentagon does business, especially how it buys weapons.”

The careful statement reflects the twin pressure points on McCain in the election season.

McCain won his GOP primary battle in Arizona over Kelli Ward, a Tea Party conservative who tried to paint him as a big-government spender.

He’ll now face Rep. Ann KirkpatrickAnn KirkpatrickDemocrats face voters clamoring for impeachment Arizona Dems ask DHS to appoint 'crisis coordinator' at border Democrats introduce bill to let 'Dreamers' work for Congress MORE, a centrist Democratic lawmaker who voted for the House defense policy bill containing the extra $18 billion.

The next test for McCain will be during the House-Senate conference on the defense policy bill.

An aide on the House Armed Services Committee said in August that it’s “too soon to say” whether the extra $18 billion will make it into the final bill, because there are “a lot of unknowns.”

For one, the aide said, the committee has “every expectation” that the Obama administration will soon request supplemental funding to pay for the recent troop increase in Iraq, as well as the continued presence in Afghanistan.

Defense hawks argue a supplemental funding request would tacitly prove their point that the administration’s 2017 budget request for defense was inadequate and would give them leverage to get the extra $18 billion passed.

But using the war fund, which isn’t subject to budget caps, to increase defense spending has been panned by both Democrats and budget hawks.

“It’s a gimmick,” said Chris Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. “It may be an effective gimmick in the sense that it allows some number of members to claim fealty to the [Budget Control Act] and not be forced to go on record against the BCA, but we know that it’s a scam.”

As such, Preble predicted that budget hawks will dig in against the extra money if it’s in the bill.

“I don’t see how the more-defense-spending guys pull that rabbit out of the hat,” Preble said. “The fundamental constraint is still there. There’s no money. Unless the deficit hawks give up, and I don’t think that’s likely to happen.”

Ultimately, defense experts expect a deal that would increase defense and nondefense spending.

But much will depend on the timing of the bill and how the election plays out, too.

If the bill is ready prior to November, Democrats could hit McCain and Republicans on either wasteful defense spending or trying to increase the defense budget while shortchanging domestic spending.

But Republicans could also use any filibuster or veto to paint Democrats as weak on defense.

Indeed, the office of House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck Ocasio-Cortez calls out Steve King, Liz Cheney amid controversy over concentration camp remarks Democrats talk up tax credits to counter Trump law MORE (R-Wis.) sent out a release last week foreshadowing the veto: “Next up, veto of the national defense bill. We are still a nation at war, but President Obama decided to put domestic pet projects above our troops.”

But if the bill isn’t ready before the election and the Senate turns blue, Republicans will have weakened leverage in budget negotiations.

Johnson gives it a “50-50” chance that the conference produces a final defense bill in the four weeks Congress is in session before the election.

“My current guess is a 50 percent chance that we see a bill in September,” he said, “but a lot of it depends on Sen. McCain.”