Originally published Feb. 24, this story was updated to include a statement from Rep. Steny Hoyer.
WASHINGTON — If it were ever in doubt, US House defense hawks are making clear to Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price they want a budget resolution that raises defense spending.
Rep. Mike Turner, who spearheaded efforts last year to secure more military funding, sent a letter to Price with the signatures of 84 House Republicans, in support for a budget with at least $574 billion for “national defense base requirements.”
The letter, which Turner, R-Ohio, made public Wednesday, pushed for an interpretation of the budget deal in which the president broke the agreement and shortchanged defense by $18 billion, an argument which undergirds efforts to raise defense spending.
Price, R-Ga., is also under pressure from deficit hawks aligned with the House Freedom Caucus who want a budget resolution that eschews higher discretionary spending caps, eased by $30 billion for fiscal 2017.
Price has said he hopes to mark up the 2017 budget resolution by late March, but his committee has been hung up since appropriators voiced opposition to Price’s plan to offer multiple options for cutting mandatory spending right away, including an option for attaching mandatory cuts to appropriations bills, according to a CQ Roll Call report.
The budget resolution is not a law, but serves as internal guidance to the other congressional committees which sets the top-line for appropriators.
“This is the next big thing to watch for, what the budget committees do with the defense part of the budget,” said Todd Harrison, a budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I fully expect for the base budget, they’ll stick to the revised budget level, so really it’s about how much additional OCO the budget committees are willing to put in.”
Last year, Price at first vowed to adhere to Budget Control Act caps before relenting under pressure from defense hawks who wanted tens of billions in OCO funding. Because that budget contained no corresponding increase for domestic spending, the president vetoed the defense policy bill in retaliation, which eventually forced a deal.
This year, several key Democrats have signaled that they will stick to last year’s negotiating point, that any increase for the military must be matched in domestic spending. This adds another hurdle for proponents of increasing OCO, as deficit hawks want to cut the domestic side, not add to it.
In recent weeks, Price has been floating the idea of a $15 billion increase for OCO, according to Harrison. While fiscal hawks are likely to go along, their efforts to cut mandatory spending sets up a fight with Democrats.
“The defense issue really boils down to how much OCO to add for defense, and the way you get [Democrats] to agree to it is with an equal amount of non-defense OCO,” Harrison said. “That is realistic and achievable.”
Critics say OCO, while an indispensable part of last year’s budget deal because it is exempt from budget caps, is being misused as an overflow receptacle for spending that cannot fit under budget caps. OCO’s one-time nature does not afford Pentagon planners budget stability — such that even some defense hawks are uncomfortable with Congress’ reliance on it.
“I’m willing to do whatever I can to get money to the defense department, but the OCO thing is like the crack cocaine of budgeting,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a prominent member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I’d rather put it in the base [budget].”
On the Senate side, Budget Committee Chair Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., was tight-lipped about his panel's deliberations. On Tuesday, he said Senate leadership had set a deadline for its budget resolution, but Enzi would not share it.
“I’m doing everything I possibly can to get to a balanced budged over a 10-year period,” Enzi said. “I’m not going into any dates. I’ll do it as quickly as I can.”
Meanwhile, House Democrats have made political hay out of the pace of the Budget Committee deliberations and are rapping Republicans for deciding not to invite Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan for a hearing to testify on the president’s budget request.
“While we had expected to see House Republicans release their budget this week, it has become apparent that internal divisions within their Conference have once again led to gridlock and delay," House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, said in a statement on Wednesday. "Perhaps, if they were to allow the Administration’s insights to be heard even in a single hearing, it might be easier to find common ground. For example, the President’s budget abides by the bipartisan budget agreement reached in October."
The No. 2 Democrat on the powerful House Rules Committee, Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern chided Price Wednesday in a House floor speech for “punting on a Republican budget because apparently there is not enough red meat in there to satisfy Tea Party or the Freedom Caucus."
Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., called on Republicans to hold a hearing on the president’s budget while the panel's budget resolution is stalled, calling the Donovan snub, “an unprecedented show of disrespect.”
“The lack of respect shown to this president is abominable, it disgraceful and it does not reflect the American character,” Pascrell said.