WASHINGTON — Pro-military Republicans for two years lobbied hard against cutting the Pentagon’s budget indiscriminately. Yet, nearly 20 GOP hawks voted against the first bipartisan budget plan that will lessen those very cuts.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Appropriations Defense subcommittee spent the 28 months since the passage of the sequestration-creating 2011 Budget Control Act warning the cuts were creating a “hollow military.”
GOP hawks used words like “dumb” and “dangerous” to describe the automatic defense cuts. They warned it would leave America vulnerable to attack by Islamic extremist groups like al-Qaida, and unable to keep pace with rising competitors like China. They accused their colleagues in Congress and the Obama administration of “undermining” US troops and putting the entire American defense industrial base at risk of collapse.
Then, for a variety of reasons, 17 of them essentially voted to keep every penny of the remaining $450 billion in Pentagon sequester cuts in place. (The measure passed 64-36.)
As recently as early November, Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., warned during a high-profile hearing that the first batch of sequestration cuts already had produced “a steep and damaging drop in capabilities and readiness.”
“Our naval fleet is at a historically low level of ships. The Air Force is the smallest in its history. The Army may shrink to a force not seen since the beginning of the 20th century,” Inhofe said last month. “Military leaders now warn of being unable to protect our interests and citizens around the world.
“At a time when our security is being increasingly threatened by terrorism, a rising China, and rogue nations like Iran and North Korea, the men and women charged with protecting this nation are being undermined and forced to endure devastating cuts to the tools they need to keep America safe,” he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is a member of both panels. In March, Graham told reporters the sequestration cuts are “destroying the Pentagon.”
In August 2012, Graham said Congress, which passed the sequester-creating BCA, “does dumb things.”
“This sequestering idea was the dumbest thing,” he said during a CNN interview.
After months and months of such dire warnings — almost daily — from Senate GOP hawks came Washington’s first bipartisan budget resolution in four years, painstakingly negotiated by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
The Ryan-Murray plan will provide $63 billion in sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015, which would be split evenly among defense and non-defense discretionary accounts. For the Defense Department, it will erase more than $30 billion in across-the-board spending cuts in 2014 and 2015.
That comes to about $31 billion in sequester relief over the next two years: $22.5 billion in 2014 and $9 billion next year.
Pentagon leaders and defense industry executives don’t love the Ryan-Murray plan, but they supported it because it would dull the sharp edge of sequestration’s across-the-board blade.
For Senate hawks, the plan provided the first opportunity to cast a vote on a sequester-targeting measure that had a good chance of being enacted.
Yet, Inhofe, Graham and 15 other Armed Services Committee and Appropriations Defense subcommittee Republican members voted against it.
There are 12 Republican members on SASC; of them, only Sens. John McCain of Arizona and retiring Saxby Chambliss of Georgia voted for the spending plan.
Graham and fellow SASC members Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., based their opposition on a provision in the plan that would use savings from military veterans’ benefits changes to help shrink the sequester cuts.
“Here’s the question: Is it this choice between keeping the government open and screwing all those military retirees?” Graham said during a Tuesday press conference. “Is that the right choice?
“Somehow it’s supposed to be OK to treat military retirees differently from other federal retirees. Why is that OK?” Graham said. “Why of all people would we penalize and treat differently the brave men and women who’ve stepped forward, chosen a military career and kept their end of the bargain?”
Ayotte and Wicker made similar comments in that presser and during other conversations with reporters this week.
Graham is facing re-election in very conservative South Carolina, meaning his vote should help him in that race. Ayotte and Wicker’s terms are not up next November.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a member of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, also is facing a tough re-election fight. In a statement, he said he voted against the measure because it altered sequestration and the spending caps that accompanied it in the 2011 Budget Control Act.
“For the first time since the Korean War, government spending has declined for two years in a row as a result of the BCA,” McConnell said. “This was hard-won progress on the road to getting our nation’s fiscal house in order. We should not go back on that commitment.”
In a statement issued Wednesday evening, Inhofe said he voted “nay” because the Ryan-Murray plan failed to replace all of the remaining defense sequestration cuts.
“The Ryan-Murray agreement continued the discriminatory nature of the sequester cuts by maintaining disproportionate cuts to our military, a budget that has already been cut by $487 billion under the Obama administration,” Inhofe said. “While the deal provided some relief to our military men and women, it was not a significant enough fix to ease the impacts sequestration will have on their readiness.”
Inhofe is facing re-election next November in conservative Oklahoma, but is not facing a primary challenger.
Also voting against the deal was Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Richard Shelby, R, who hails from defense sector-friendly Alabama. He told reporters this week he opposed the plan because it raised spending caps put in place by the 2011 BCA.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, slammed what he called “a bad budget bill that spends more, taxes more, and funds Obamacare, with no Republican amendments and no input from Senate Republicans.”
To right-wing GOP members, the plan is “more of the same D.C. deal-making that doesn’t fix our problems or help the people,” Cruz said.
Other SASC Republican hawks who voted against the Ryan-Murray plan were Roy Blunt of Missouri, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Mike Lee of Utah, David Vitter of Louisiana and Deb Fischer of Nebraska. Other SAC-D hawks who opposed it were Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Dan Coats of Indiana, and its ranking member, Thad Cochran of Mississippi.
Sessions, Cochran and Alexander are facing re-election in conservative states, with the latter two facing primary challengers.
The Senate hawks’ opposition is in stark contrast to their House cohorts, many of whom voted for the Ryan-Murray plan.
House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told Defense News last week he would vote in favor of it, calling it “a good deal for defense.”
HASC Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., also said he would vote yes, saying the temporary sequester relief it proposes “was the best deal he [Ryan] could have got.”