WASHINGTON — The frontrunner to succeed House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, "has the support of defense hawks" in Congress, according a key lawmaker on defense.
Tactical Air and Land Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner, who led efforts to plus-up the defense budget earlier this year, said like-minded Republicans know McCarthy was "instrumental in enduring in the budget fight for 2016 that we fully funded defense."
"He both a listens and is a leader, and because of that I think people believe he will be an effective speaker, for us to deliver to our men and women in uniform what they need for our national security," Turner, R-Ohio, told Defense News.
As Republican fiscal hawks and defense hawks clash over military spending, McCarthy, R-Calif., proved his bona fides against the budget-cutters when he voted down a budget proposal in March that offered $20 billion less for defense. That proposal was offered by GOP Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., now running for House majority leader.
"I think that certainly reflects his concern for defense spending," Turner, R-Ohio, said of the vote. "I believe you can’t be a conservative or a budget hawk if you’re not also a defense hawk. The fallacy of those who think they can balance the budget on the backs of our men and women in uniform is a false victory."
McCarthy — House majority leader since August 2014 — announced his candidacy after Boehner, of Ohio, announced on Sept. 25 he would retire from Congress effective Oct. 30. The news came days before Congress passed a stopgap spending measure to fund the federal government until Dec. 11 without accomplishing a bipartisan budget deal or a resolution to budget caps seen as damaging to defense.
House Republicans, who have set leadership elections for Oct. 8, are said to be willing to elect new leadership resolve the matter quickly, though repeated rebellions by conservatives during Boehner’s five-year reign show how fractured the caucus has been. McCarthy’s competition is fiscal hawk Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida.
To reach a budget deal, the next Republican speaker of the House will be the man in the middle, trying to bridge the competing factions in his unruly caucus — and Democrats. Democrats, who can wield considerable leverage in the Senate and the presidential veto, want any increase in the defense budget matched on the nondefense side.
One sticking point for Democrats and President Obama is the budget plan shepherded by McCarthy and supported by fiscal defense hawks that included a defense plus-up funded through the wartime overseas contingency operations (OCO) account. Some Republicans too have reportedly criticized excessive use of OCO, like Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who compared it to a "slush fund."
"There is a clearly an appetite for continued fiscal discipline in the Republican party," said Guggenheim Securities analyst Roman Schweizer said. "Whatever Republican leadership will be elected on a platform that’s true to those principles and acknowledges the voice of the fiscal hawks on these matters, — so I don’t think the Boehner resignation makes it any easier."
Outside experts wonder if the change in speaker will really mean much for the ongoing fights between defense supporters and fiscal hawks.
"It's still not clear what McCarthy really is," Laicie Heeley, a Stimson Center fellow on defense issues, said. "He is generally seen as another John Boehner-type, looking to build consensus. He isn't seen as unfriendly to defense … but he's walking into the same storm."
One senior Congressional aide said McCarthy — if elected speaker — is likely to be deferential on most defense issues to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas. In mid-September, McCarthy accompanied Thornberry to Bell Helicopter's V-22 Osprey plant and to the Pantex nuclear weapons plant, both in Amarillo, and the two are said to have a good working relationship.
Off Capitol Hill, McCarthy has also shown a willingness to listen to and build relationships with industry and policy leaders. He has held several roundtables with these audiences to both learn and discuss legislative plans, according to Mackenzie Eaglen, an American Enterprise Institute analyst and former congressional defense aide.
"I think like most members in leadership, McCarthy is a political operator first," Eaglen said. "Recent months have shown him attempting to ramp up on policy. Even the effort of doing so sets him apart in leadership — most of whom have been indifferent at best to defense issues, budgets and policies during the Obama administration."
In that regard, McCarthy has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, former Rep. Eric Cantor, as majority leader, and for a time was advised by an adviser of Cantor's who has since left for Jeb Bush's presidential campaign.
Eric Edelman, a former undersecretary for defense in the George W. Bush administration and a member of the John Hay Initiative, described McCarthy's political orientation as "a kind of Reaganite conservative internationalism, which is 'peace through strength,' Reagan's watchwords."
For all the budget chaos facing McCarthy, "he's at least given indications that there's a very serious problems with defense from the criticisms that he's voiced," Edelman said.
McCarthy showcased his foreign policy views in a broad foreign policy speech at an event sponsored by the conservative John Hay Initiative, just days after Boehner’s announcement. McCarthy’s remarks excoriated Obama and hit some familiar Republican tropes, but skipped the subject of defense funding.
"The America we need and deserve is strong, respected, appreciated and feared," McCarthy said. "A country where the noble cause of freedom inspires millions of people across the world to stand up, speak out, and fight tyranny and injustice in the pursuit of individual liberty and human rights."
In conflict zones around the world, McCarthy was for pushing the throttle down. He called for abandoning the Iran nuclear deal; providing lethal aid to Ukraine against Russia; and expanding use of Special Forces and airstrikes against the Islamic State — and a US-enforced no-fly zone over Northern Syria to protect refugees and "rebooted" Syrian rebels who would fight Islamic terrorists and the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"Strength and resolve bring peace and security," McCarthy said. "The absence of leadership over the past six years has had horrific consequences all across the globe, and it is getting worse day by day."
If McCarthy has reached out to the defense industry, it has donated comparatively little to McCarthy in the last year. A combined $43,000 would not even place defense in the top 20 industries contributing to the House leader, topped by "securities and investment," according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Michael Herson, president and CEO of Washington consultancy American Defense International, said Tuesday that McCarthy has been "very accessible" to defense firms seeking to make their case to Congress. "He understands the importance of what's going on in industry and shown a willingness to meet," Herson said.
Herson was hopeful that McCarthy, as speaker, would be willing to work out a deal in Congress to ease sequestration budget caps that restrict federal dollars.
For Greg Lankler, managing director at the lobbying firm Mercury, and a former Hill staffer, the true test will come when its time to pass a final appropriations bill for defense — which is deserving of special consideration because service members risk their lives.
"All I ever got from this leadership team is that they understand the impact a [continuing resolution] has on our military," Lankler said. "But I never see a sense of urgency to treat defense any different from other appropriations."
Staff Writer Leo Shane III contributed to this report.
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.