WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump missed his campaign promise to offer a bill to "eliminate the defense sequester" within the first 100 days of his administration, but hawkish Republican lawmakers are pressing ahead.
The heads of the House and Senate armed services committees — bolstered by a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., signed by 141 lawmakers — are calling for a repeal of budget caps for defense.
The organizer of the letter, Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the HASC Air and Land Subcommittee, introduced a bill in March to that effect. On the Senate side, SASC Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said he's open to whatever works — Turner's bill, a deal with Democrats that repeals budget caps universally or making a vehicle out of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act are on the table.
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"I will try anything I can do, including lying down on the floor of the Senate," McCain told reporters, adding: "Sequestration is an act of sheer political cowardice, because you let a meat ax act without any discrimination, judgment or value — it's disgraceful."
McCain and HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, support breaking the caps for defense by $90 billion — which the Aerospace Industries Association has hailed as "a strong starting position for sustained, long-term reinvestment in defense capabilities." Leftover Obama administration plans exceed caps by $35 billion, and Trump's proposed a $603 billion defense budget exceeds caps by $54 billion.
Whatever the final number, analysts predict a long slog through Congress, marked by partisan rancor, to reach a bipartisan budget deal that arrives late and falls somewhere between former US President Barack Obama's projection and Trump's proposal. As usual, House GOP divisions and the 60-vote threshold in the Senate to modify the caps mean Republicans will have to strike a deal with Democrats — and Democrats are almost sure to oppose amending, if not ending, defense caps by themselves.
The letter marks the first time a majority of House GOP lawmakers have in recent years vocally backed spending increases. It includes Thornberry and other defense hawks who have condemned sequestration as damaging to military readiness, but also the chairman of the fiscally conservative House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and deficit hawks like Rep. Mo Brooks.
Defense sector analyst Roman Schweizer, of Cowen and Company, reads the inclusion of rank-and-file lawmakers as "positive momentum" behind defense spending, as a high priority, being "de-linked from nondefense — which is difficult given the political dynamics — or the Budget Control Act needs to be adjusted, amended or done away with."
The White House is reportedly finalizing a budget blueprint that promises balanced budgets within 10 years through rosy economic predictions along with cuts to entitlement programs and domestic agencies in order to pay for its defense increase. Democrats and some Republicans are already signaling that budget will be dead on arrival when it's unveiled May 23.
With that in mind and other roadblocks for appropriations, the topline for the NDAA is in flux. Thornberry said the HASC would "calibrate as we go," weighing the president's and the House Budget Committee's numbers.
Congress needs to advance the GOP's healthcare overhaul plans to clear the way for the 2018 budget resolution and generate revenue for another key GOP agenda item, tax reform. Because there's no consensus on heathcare, which appropriations bills are likely to be delayed until late summer, said Jim Moran, a former Democratic congressman from Virginia who served for many years on the House Appropriations Committee.
"You could resolve all that if you get rid of sequester, but to get rid of sequester requires 60 [Senate] votes," Moran said. "To get 60 votes, you need eight Dems, and they're going to insist on parity [between defense and non-defense]. They'll want 1-for-1, and Trump won't accept that, so you're at a stalemate."
Republicans claim they broke new ground when Democrats agreed to a 2017 spending deal without parity for defense and non-defense spending. But Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the use of cap-exempt overseas contingency operations funding has long been a relief valve in budget deals, and will again.
"I would say Democrats broke that [principle] some time ago, because DoD has been putting about $30 billion in base budget funding into the OCO budget, in addition to all the base budget funding Congress put in OCO," Harrison said. "I think that will continue as long as fiscal conservatives will tolerate it."
One wild card in the budgeting process is the president himself. After the fiscal 2017 budget deal was announced, Trump signaled he might veto any budget he doesn't like in order to to shut down the government and force Republicans to abolish the 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster, all to clear a path for a budget he likes.
"If the president is willing to stand his ground against Senate Republicans, they could the nuclear option to pass the budget they want — and that would make the rest of their legislative agenda easier," Harrison said. "I think it's plausible, I don't think it's the most likely scenario.
Calling Trump's shutdown tweet, "insane," Moran said a shutdown would be so damaging to trade, the military, federal workers, and political suicide for the GOP, Senate leadership will at least seek to avoid it. He predicted that Senate Majority Leader McConnell, R-Ky., would keep his word not to kill the filibuster for legislation.
"Some Democrats would criticize me for saying this, but Mitch McConnell knows, understands and loves the institution," Moran said. "For all his irascibility, he wants the legislative branch to function and we won't do things to permanently damage the institution, even if it pisses off Donald Trump."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.