WASHINGTON — House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry said Tuesday he would vote for the House Budget Committee spending blueprint unveiled Tuesday even though it gambles on the next administration boosting defense via emergency funding.
House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., announced Tuesday his panel will consider a 2017 budget resolution this week that calls for $1.07 trillion in spending next year, a deal-breaker for the far-right House Freedom Caucus, whose members sought a $30 billion budget cut. It's unclear whether the budget will make it out of the committee, which has several Freedom Caucus members.
Some defense hawks may have problems of their own with another part of the plan. Though it touts $74 billion for the overseas contingency operations (OCO), which at first blush looks like an increase over the $59 billion for OCO in the president's 2017 budget request, that larger figure actually combines the Pentagon and State Department OCO requests.
That means House appropriators will have to decide whether or not to increase defense OCO by taking money from State Department OCO. If not, it would then in theory be up to the next administration to seek an emergency supplemental.
Two leading defense advocates in the House said this is a risk they can accept: Thornberry and Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio. Thornberry cast it as the superior alternative to sequestration budget cuts or another federal budget crisis.
"If I've got two chances, a chance at an appropriations bill and chance for a new administration to reconcile this mismatch, I'm going to take it and take it through the [end of the] Obama administration," Thornberry said Tuesday. "That was my judgement."
The House GOP budget sets $574 billion in base budget requirements, with some funded through the base budget and some through the OCO budget. That leaves OCO funding $18 billion short of the activities the president has asked for, according to Thornberry — something the next administration will have to "reconcile."
Turner, chair of the HASC Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, said in a statement Tuesday he supports the plan.
"After leading the fight for a fully funded defense, I am pleased with the Budget Committee's announcement," he said. "As we face continued terror threats, it is critically important that we sustain our military and meet contingency operations requirements so that we can provide our next president with viable strategic options."
Yet this plan has attracted criticism from the conservative Heritage Foundation, where its senior policy analyst for defense budgeting policy, Justin Johnson, said it relies on a "gimmick," in which the troops are used as political leverage.
"The House Budget Committee is kicking the can down the road," Johnson said, adding later: "It's a political bet that the next president will support the troops and support a supplemental, but who knows between now and January what happens."
If it reaches the House floor next week, defense hawks and fiscal hawks could both vote "no" on the budget resolution, sinking it.
"It will be much harder to pass the budget if the defense hawks understand what's going on here," Johnson said, adding later: "It's an election year, how are you going to vote to underfund the troops."
The conservative House Freedom Caucus, a bloc of about 40 lawmakers, has called for a $30 billion cut to comply with the original budget caps, one which targets entitlement programs.
House Democrats have not committed to voting in favor of the budget. Some Senate Democrats have said their potential support would surely be lost if it includes conservative policy riders.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has struggled to appease members of the House Freedom Caucus as he settles a budget based on the 2015 deal. Republican leaders hoped to win over some conservatives by offering stand-alone legislation to cut the $30 billion that fiscal conservatives wanted. The budget requires consideration of such legislation.
He signaled Tuesday that Republicans will press ahead to pass a new resolution and that he would stick to his promise of avoiding top-down leadership.
"We're proceeding with our plan," Ryan said.
"I promise in this speakership that we're not going to have a top-down, cram-it-down-peoples-throat kind of leadership," he said. "We're going to make decisions as a team. We're going to push power out to the members, and we're going to make a team decision on this issue."