Senate Republican hawks are vowing to push something legislatively this year that will lessen sequestration's blow — or get rid of it for a year or more. But to get the 60 required votes to defeat a potential filibuster, they likely will have to persuade some fiscal hawks from their own party to vote with them.
CongressWatch spoke to Jeff Sessions, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services and Budget committees, who is emerging as the chamber's leading fiscal conservative.
Q. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and other defense hawks want to raise Pentagon spending caps. Could you go along with legislation to do that?
A. I believe if people want to raise the defense cap, then they're going to have to justify it. We're going to have to talk about it, and we're going to have to go to more than just general rhetoric but specific justifications because it doesn't do any good to have ... the Budget Control Act if we're not going to adhere to it but [for] a year or two. I think erosion of that limit requires careful thought.
Q. If the pro-defense caucus loses Republicans more concerned about cutting spending, and Democrats who likely would want concessions on domestic sequestration cuts, could they get 60 votes in the Senate?
A. I don't know. We can't continue this idea that if we have a national security threat we have to match that [amount] in domestic spending. In truth, if your national security threat increases your need to spend more on defense, you should really spend less on non-defense.
But somehow, the president has this idea that "you Republicans only care about defense and I care about non-defense, so I'm not going to support any increase in defense unless you give me more money in non-defense." He's the commander in chief. He should first and foremost be worried about the security of America.
Q. Fiscal conservatives want to keep the spending caps in place, right?
A. A lot of people don't realize that after next year both categories, defense and non-defense, increase at 2.5 percent a year. They keep talking like there's still big cuts out in the future — but the growth starts. We took a big, significant cut, and it hurt the Defense Department more than a lot of the others. But if you are issuing grants and you get cut 10 percent, you just give them $90,000 instead of $100,000.... But the Defense Department has to maybe lay off soldiers, they have to cancel contracts, you can't breach contracts, you can't purchase things that you're contracted to purchase. All these things can be very harmful.
Q. Congress repeatedly has increased the overseas contingency operations (OCO) budget to help ease sequestration's blow. But does inflating the OCO help with those things?
A. Not really.
Q. Then why not support a budget plan that raises the defense caps?
A. My position is if we increase the Defense Department, I want to know that you've eliminated every waste, that you've contained abuses and unnecessary spending. And then you show me specifically what additional money you need and I'll consider that. But otherwise, we're going to stay within the caps.
Q. One source told me this week he believes the best the defense hawks could do is to offset sequestration by finding savings within the Pentagon's budget. Is that a more preferable option for you?
A. I think it would be a mistake if we took the pressure off too fast without having a good feeling that they've done those things. [DoD officials] are having a tough time. They're going from 570,000 soldiers to 490,000.... So we do have to carefully analyze the Defense Department.
Q. But it sounds like moves the Pentagon has made because of the cuts are not reason enough, in your mind, to give an inch on a deal with Democrats that also would raise domestic spending caps. Is that right?
A. We don't need to give on the domestic side. We cannot afford to give on the domestic side. This country is going broke. We're still on an unsustainable debt course. If interest rates surge, and they could at any time, we'll be knocked for a loop. So I think we've got to maintain frugality. ■