House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Getty Images (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — House GOP defense hawks are joining their Senate cohorts in calling for the party’s far-right faction to drop its war on Obamacare and focus on issues like voiding further Pentagon budget cuts.
House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Republicans were largely quiet for weeks as about two dozen tea party-affiliated House Republicans and a few in the Senate convinced lower-chamber leaders to demand a short-term government spending measure defund or delay US President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform law.
But the tea party’s unexpected assault on Obamacare forced a government shutdown that polls show is hurting the GOP brand, and a standoff over what analysts say would be an economically disastrous US debt default.
Senior HASC Republicans have seen enough, and they are coming off the political sidelines with a message for the party’s young, firebrand wing: We hate the health care law, too — but it’s time to drop the Obamacare offensive.
“I think we’ve pretty well shown that we’re not going to win the fight on Obamacare,” HASC Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., told Defense News on Tuesday. “We’re not going to get rid of Obamacare. This president will never sign it. We only control part of one of the bodies here. I think our biggest emphasis should be on getting our spending under control.
“Obamacare is a problem, no question. But we’ve done everything we can. We’ve voted over 40 times to get rid of it,” McKeon said. “I think the president has pretty well indicated he’s not going to bend on that.”
The HASC chairman, an ally of embattled House Speaker John Boehner, candidly acknowledged GOP leaders came into a busy fall and winter slate with no intentions of tying Obamacare to a government shutdown fight nor a debate over the nation’s borrowing limit.
“I don’t think this was a fight that we were asking for. Sen. [Ted] Cruz kind of changed the agenda in August,” McKeon said of the upstart Texas Republican who pressed his House tea party mates to go after Obamacare full bore.
“That was not in our leadership’s plans, that was not in any of our plans,” McKeon said. “I’ve moved on. I was sequestration two years ago, I’m sequestration now. I’m looking at the effects on our military and our contractors and our position around the world with our allies. We’ve got to get this defense fixed.”
HASC Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, a leading critic of President Obama, told reporters on Friday that he also wants the caucus to focus more on voiding the defense sequester cuts.
“I think the president is going to have to address the issue (sequestration) before we can move forward,” Turner said. “My bottom line, at this point, is we have to lift sequestration, and do that in a responsible way.”
Turner noted for a group of reporters that, on Obamacare: “I have always opposed it. I voted against it from the beginning, and I’ve supported trying to get it set aside.
“There are 435 members in there,”’ Turner said, pointing toward the House chamber. “But my issue is sequestration.”
HASC Seapower subcommittee Chairman Randy Forbes, R-Va., told Defense News late last month that he is withholding a “commitment” on how he would vote on major fiscal legislation until “we do something to kind of turn around some of this [defense] funding.”
That kind of rhetoric aligns the top HASC Republicans with their cohorts on the Senate’s military panel, including former ranking member John McCain of Arizona. McCain and other Senate Republicans have had harsh words for Cruz and the House tea party wing.
Senior House Armed Services Committee members want the tea party faction to allow House GOP leadership to get on with the tough work of striking a deal with the Democrats and the White House that voids the remaining nine years of Pentagon sequestration cuts slated to take an additional $450 billion from planned DoD spending.
“I think … that’s happened,” McKeon said when asked if he and other HASC Republican leaders have pushed tea party members to drop their Obamacare demands. “I hear a lot of our members talking about the debt ceiling now,” he added after a closed-door caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol.
Despite the public divide on whether to keep fighting to defund or delay Obamacare, McKeon said House Republicans are unified about cutting domestic spending and resisting further tax hikes as part of any debt-ceiling increase or fiscal grand bargain bills in coming months.
Joining House GOP defense hawks in calling for a new approach are moderate party leaders and moderate Democrats who hail from swing states.
“I'm not voting to raise the debt ceiling without doing something about the deficit,” House GOP Deputy Whip Tom Cole, R-Okla., told reporters Tuesday morning. “But let’s start the negotiations.
“We’re not dictating an outcome here,” Cole said of House Republican leaders. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s sit down and talk.’ ”
Add to the list of deal-minded Democrats those from states like Virginia, which have big military and defense-sector footprints that fuel local and statewide economies. Boehner reportedly has told his caucus he would allow a debt deal, which could address sequestration, pass the House with a mix of Democratic and moderate Republican support.
“Whatever we do on the shutdown, on Jan.15, the sequester forces defense spending to drop by $21 billion,” Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., told reporters Friday. “By then, we’ve got to have some plan in place to replace discretionary cuts with entitlement reforms.”