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Sequester Isn’t Enough for House GOP

Mar. 11, 2013 - 12:08PM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
For many conservative House Republicans, the priority is not just reducing the nation's deficit, but wiping it out completely. House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is expected this week to roll out a new budget blueprint that proposes to do just that in a decade.
For many conservative House Republicans, the priority is not just reducing the nation’s deficit, but wiping it out completely. House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is expected this week to roll out a new budget blueprint that proposes to do just that in a decade. (AFP)
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WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republican deficit hawks are declaring victory after forcing a half-trillion-dollar-cut to Pentagon spending. And they’re hungry for more.

President Barack Obama and many Senate Republicans last week began talks about a “grand bargain” fiscal deal that would turn off sequestration. But across the Capitol campus, House GOP leaders and rank-and-file members praised the twin $500 billion reductions to planned defense and domestic spending as long overdue — and called for even deeper spending cuts.

“Sequestration is dumb. But the only thing dumber is not doing it, and doing nothing about the debt,” Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, told Defense News. “I think the defense budget has to always be on the table.

“The idea that we can’t somehow save money on defense — I don’t think so,” Simpson said. “Any idea that defense is off the table is an error.”

House Budget Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., declared “real spending reductions are exactly what the overwhelming majority of the American people demand.

“Sequestration is imperfect due to its across-the-board cuts and its disproportional impact on national security programs,” Price added. “But in an era of trillion-dollar deficits and long-term economic uncertainty, responsibly reducing spending is ... necessary.”

In a shift, even some longtime GOP allies of the Pentagon and defense sector seem to have gotten the message. And they’re jumping aboard the deficit-reduction train.

“In 2011, we had to do two defense bills. We cut $39 billion out of that budget,” House Appropriations defense subcommittee Chairman Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., said during a brief interview. “So, yes, there are ways to save money in any budget — including the defense budget.

“That deficit has been growing for years and years and years. We have got to start reducing the debt if we’re ever going to do it, and it should be a substantial reduction. ... The interest payment on that debt almost equals the defense budget. This is not good. You’ve got to quit spending so much money or one day you’re going to have to face up to where you are: a day of reckoning. Well, it’s here.”

Some of the Pentagon and defense sector’s biggest Capitol Hill allies say House Republicans’ insistence on more cuts — and from anywhere possible — put a Pentagon budget that accounts for more than half — $518.1 billion of $982 billion — of each chamber’s proposed 2013 continuing budget resolution legislation in the cross hairs.

Retiring Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., widely hailed as an old-school Capitol Hill negotiator who knows how to cut deals on tough issues, told Defense News more defense cuts are inevitable if House Republicans continue demanding mostly spending cuts while also refusing any new revenues and the administration’s entitlement-reform ideas.

“I think everything is in jeopardy. I think the idea that the Republicans have is that, ‘We’re going to be able to reduce the deficit by cutting spending, and draw a line that revenues are off the table,‘“ Levin said when asked if the Pentagon budget remains in danger of cuts beyond sequestration. “Until that line is removed, you’re going to see this pressure to cut more programs continue. ... I don’t think the question is to cut [the defense budget] or not. The question is how.”

Though pro-defense lawmakers from both parties say there is hope about a legislative package — perhaps as part of a “big deal” fiscal bill — to replace the sequester cuts this year, conservative House Republicans last week said doing that would be a mistake.

“The most important thing that’s happening this morning is the savings that began [March 1] are locked in [by] the continuing resolution,” Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said March 5 on the House floor. “These are savings that have been anticipated for years, delayed for months, and finally arrived [March 1]. The market responded yesterday with an all-time high. It’s time to let those savings work their magic on the American economy.”

For many conservative House Republicans, the priority is not just reducing the nation’s deficit, but wiping it out completely. House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is expected this week to roll out a new budget blueprint that proposes to do just that in a decade.

Make no mistake: For many House Republicans, the $16.7 trillion national deficit is more than a political issue.

“For the debt the Republic of Texas accumulated, we would have continued as an independent nation,” Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, said March 5 on the House floor. “That debt caused a collapse of the Republic of Texas, and House conservatives are deeply concerned that these debts and deficits will ultimately crush the United States of America just as it did the Republic of Texas.”

For others, it’s a moral issue.

“We need to make tough, smart choices and reduce spending now so that we don’t hand our children the most regressive tax there is — an immoral national debt approaching $17 trillion,” said Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y. “There is no reason and should be no reason why both sides can’t agree on cutting $85 billion,” he said, referring to the 2013 tranche of the total sequestration cuts.

And, as their leadership made clear last week, House Republicans want more cuts. In fact, they seem willing to discuss a grand bargain — but only if it contains mostly federal spending cuts.

“Spending is the problem here in Washington, and our goal is to cut spending,” House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said March 5.

House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters moments later the lower chamber’s GOP caucus has a clear top priority: “Reduce the level of spending here in Washington.”

House GOP leaders and other members sent a tough signal last week that they will put up a fight against any effort to turn off or replace the sequestration cuts.

“I think all of us on both sides of the aisle have said that the sequester is not the smart way of accomplishing the reduction in spending, but it seems it’s the only kind of reduction that the president lives with, because he has to,” Cantor said. “It’s the law.”

For House Republicans, that means entitlement program reforms if Democrats propose the right ones, and lots more spending cuts.

“We remain committed to continuing to try and reach some type of resolution where there’s a balanced approach to managing down the debt and deficit, meaning balancing it in 10 years in our way of looking at things,” Cantor said.

House Republican deficit hawks’ next opportunity to demand big federal spending cuts could come this spring when Obama and Congress begin negotiations over raising the federal borrowing limit. After that, congressional observers say the next best chance will be when — and if — Obama and the Senate hammer out a grand bargain and send it to the House.

The first post-sequestration week in Washington brought into the light the growing divide within the Republican Party, with deficit hawks on one side and pro-defense members on the other.

“I hope [House GOP deficit hawks] won’t put more pressure on the Pentagon,” hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Defense News last week. “We’re destroying the Pentagon under sequestration.”

Some analysts say Graham’s side is losing the party’s internal struggle.

“The Republican Party has been slowly hemorrhaging having a strong national defense as a key priority of a conservative agenda for years,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate defense aide who is with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Defense is just not a Republican priority anymore.”

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