WASHINGTON – Congressional deficit hawks, and their big-money donors, won the first match. Defense hawks stole the second. And all signs point to the spending hawks taking the next round.
Since the tea party — backed by Koch Brothers cash — swept into office in 2010, the US defense sector has been battling conservative lawmakers' penchant for deep spending cuts and smaller federal deficits.
"There is a struggle that's ongoing between the fiscal conservatives and hawks," one GOP source said. "Defense hawks could bring down the [coming 2016] budget resolution on the floor because members like [Reps. Randy Forbes, R-Va., and Mike Turner, R-Ohio, both House Armed Services subcommittee chairs] say they won't vote for the budget if it breaks with the Ryan level."
He was referring to the 2014 House Republican budget plan crafted by then-Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. That blueprint called for $585.5 billion in base national defense spending.
"You've got 25 fiscal conservatives who will vote against any budget no matter what because they believe it gives the president too much authority on any number of programs," the source said. "Then leadership needs the defense hawks to vote for it, but they want more defense spending. It creates a real tough balancing act."
Doing something legislatively in Washington requires a robust offensive attack. In 2010, the tea party had a dominant offense. In 2012, it was the defense caucus that was more adept at putting up points.
The 2014 midterm election handed a bigger House majority to Republicans and control of the Senate. It also changed the rules of the spending game in favor of a strong defense.
Two months into the 114th Congress, the deficit hawks are shaping up to be a solid defensive unit. Since playing defense in Washington means doing nothing legislatively, the deficit reducers have grabbed a big lead in the next round.
There appears to be little appetite in either chamber to raise defense spending caps etched into law by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). The first evidence would come in a 2016 budget resolution.
"The Pentagon is going to understand how far down they're going to have to fall," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate defense aide now with the American Enterprise Institute. "They will meet the caps.
"Sure, both sides want a higher defense topline, but that's where the agreement stops," she said. "Neither party has any indication or inclination about how this ends up."
In their public comments since taking the gavels in January, the new chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees have uttered nary a word about increasing defense spending.
Chairman Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Ranking Member Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., both delivered lengthy and substantive opening statements on Feb. 3 that amounted to expressions of their budget priorities.
Enzi has spent most of his time knocking President Barack Obama for proposing "more overspending" in a federal budget blueprint that the chairman alleges would add to the massive national debt. He charged Obama with proposing to "mortgage the future to pay for the present."
Sanders, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, seems to be trying out his campaign-trail message: Income inequality should be the main focus of Washington. He spent January and February railing against the economic success of large corporations and wealthy individuals, saying the middle class needs help to grow its collective wages.
If defense hawks like Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., want to pass a cap-raising bill, they'll need a coalition to get to 60 votes in the Senate.
But fiscal hawk Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a senior member of the Senate Armed Services and Budget committees, signals a fight is ahead.
"I believe if people want to raise the defense cap, then they're going to have to justify it," he told Defense News. "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.
"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," Sessions said. "I think erosion of that limit requires careful thought."
Eaglen and other analysts say the 2016 budget resolution likely will give the third round to those in favor of keeping the caps in place.
Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments budget analyst Todd Harrison wrote in a recent blog post that "neither party likes budget caps in the BCA, but they have not been able to agree on a way to eliminate them — hence the breakdown in the budget process.
"If the budget committees don't make progress on reaching a deal as part of the budget-setting process, it's a good bet Congress will again wait until the last minute to address the budget caps," Harrison wrote. "I am not optimistic that Congress will make much progress."