Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are weighing additional defense cuts as part of a massive deficit-reduction package. (AFP)
Higher tax rates. Medicare cuts. Those are issues Republicans and Democrats have made clear are non-starters in efforts to craft a massive deficit-reduction package.
But one formerly untouchable issue now occasionally crosses congressional leaders’ lips: additional defense cuts. In fact, if one listens to the public debate long enough, it appears that protecting the Pentagon budget from more cuts is suddenly an afterthought.
For nearly two years, Republican leaders and rank-and-file members, joined by hawkish Democrats, stood firm against slashing the Pentagon’s annual budget to help reduce the federal deficit, which has topped $1 trillion for four consecutive years.
Take House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who in October 2011 said this about additional Pentagon spending cuts: “I would argue that they’ve taken more than their fair share of the hits.”
But just a few months and a completed election cycle later, Boehner rarely marks the Pentagon budget — which has grown to about $530 billion plus nearly $100 billion a year in war spending — as off limits for Republicans.
In brief comments to reporters on Nov. 28, Boehner said, “It’s time for the president and Democrats to get serious about the spending problem that we have.”
He did not warn President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats against proposing new Pentagon cuts as the two sides haggle over the contents of a bill to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”
The speaker’s rhetorical shift is key because all deficit-reduction talks involve only Obama, Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. But, increasingly, most see two members of that group as key.
“Forget the Gang of Six, and the Gang of Eight,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “Right now, this comes down to the Gang of Two: Speaker Boehner and the president.”
In a series of interviews last week on Capitol Hill, other Republicans appeared to be backing away from their collective anti-defense cuts stance.
Asked by Defense News whether he would support additional defense cuts at a level below the automatic $500 billion reduction set to kick in Jan. 2, Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sidestepped the question. “I’d need to hear what the Department of Defense thinks about that,” Graham said.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee member, said, “I think that we have to put everything on the table — we have to take a look at everything.”
Economists say the U.S. economy would tumble off a steep cliff if a slew of tax cuts expire and deep cuts to planned federal spending, including for the military, are allowed to kick in. Lawmakers and Obama can avoid twin $500 billion cuts to defense and domestic spending by agreeing to reductions of at least $1.2 trillion in the federal deficit by Dec. 31. If they fail to pass that kind of bill, or one that delays the defense cuts, the cuts would be triggered.
When House Democratic and Republican leaders addressed reporters Nov. 28 following separate closed-door meetings about avoiding the fiscal cliff, there was nary a mention about protecting defense spending.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut urged Republicans to support Obama’s proposal to extend middle-class tax cuts in coming weeks, and leave the question of whether to raise new federal revenue in the lower chamber.
“We have clear agreement among Democrats and Republicans that we have near unanimous support on making sure the middle class is not impacted by the Dec. 31 deadline,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus.
“Where we disagree, let us push that off,” Larson said, “and where we agree, let us embrace.” The Democratic leaders signaled they remain skeptical about major changes to Medicare and Medicaid.
The absence of talk about the defense cuts is a sign that further Pentagon budget reductions, at some level below $500 billion, are on the table.
“Of course, it’s going to have to come down some,” said Gordon Adams, an American University professor who was a senior defense budget official in the Clinton administration. “There is zero possibility that defense is not on the table here. Revenues and entitlements and overall deficits are driving things, not the defense budget.”
House Republicans have raised hopes in recent weeks for a “grand bargain” that avoids across-the-board Pentagon spending cuts by stating they would support raising new federal revenues. For nearly two years, congressional Republicans and presidential candidates had held firm against new revenues.
Several Capitol Hill Republicans told Defense News they now want Democrats to reciprocate by proposing cuts to domestic entitlement programs. GOP leaders are pressing Obama, and congressional Democrats also are looking for federal spending cuts.
Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, said, “We have not seen any good faith effort to talk about the real problem we’re trying to fix.”
Cantor said Erskine Bowles, the Clinton-era White House chief of staff who was the co-chair of Obama’s 2010 fiscal commission, told Republicans, “There has been no serious discussion by the White House on Medicare and Medicaid.”
The Republican leaders made clear they oppose raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and want entitlement program changes. With those costly programs likely off the table, getting to the $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction target mandated by a 2011 law becomes harder. And that likely puts the defense budget in play for additional cuts to planned spending, but smaller than the pending $500 billion reduction.
For some hawkish House Republicans, the threat of more Pentagon cuts has them ready to support the previously unthinkable: new federal revenues.
“As far as any pledges [about refusing to raise federal taxes], just my personal opinion, is my pledge is to the folks in my district and doing what we need to do to get past this,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.
Kinzinger, who signed the anti-tax pledge promoted by Americans for Tax Reform head Grover Norquist and is an Air Force veteran, said additional defense cuts are so alarming that he is willing to do whatever it takes to get a broader fiscal deal done.
“I actually am OK with putting revenue on the table, talking about various ways to get to whatever target we need to,” Kinzinger said. “This isn’t me saying that I believe increasing revenue is going to help the economy — I don’t. But [it’s] understanding that we have to work with a Democrat president, we have to work with a Senate that will be more Democrat than it was this year.”
Zachary Fryer-Biggs contributed to this report.