WASHINGTON — Defense hawks will likely back the two-year budget accord crafted by the White House and Republican leaders in Congress, according to a key lawmaker on defense in the House — even though the deal reportedly falls a few billion shy of the president's $612 billion defense budget request.
Although there has been no official announcement of the details, news outlets are reporting that the two-year agreement would raise domestic and defense spending by $80 billion and lift the national borrowing limit until March 2017. Republicans are said to be divided on the deal, which could be voted on by the House as soon as Wednesday — the same day the GOP is expected to nominate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to replace retiring Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, as House speaker.
House Tactical Air and Land Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner released a statement Monday night welcoming the deal, after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., held a meeting with his caucus to explain the contours. Though it does not say so explicitly, the statement raises the likelihood that Boehner will be able to deliver an important voting bloc.
On Oct. 15, Turner, along with 101 House Republicans, sent a letter to House leaders calling for a defense budget that falls no lower than the president's requested level. Earlier this year, Turner had sent a similar letter to House leaders, signed by 70 House Republicans, which he Turner noted, set conditions for, "a House budget deal that fully funded defense."
"There is tremendous value in a two-year deal, as it provides the Department of Defense with the certainty it needs to plan for and execute various missions around the world," Turner said. "Certainly, in a one-year funding bill these numbers would be absolutely unacceptable. As a potential deal moves to the floor for consideration, it's imperative that national defense remains fully funded."
Under the potential budget deal, it appears as though GOP defense hawks would get $5 billion less than the amount they sought for defense, according to a Senate aide. The potential deal prescribes a $33 billion plus-up for defense in fiscal 2016, with $25 billion of this in the base budget and $8 billion in the wartime overseas contingency operations account, instead of a $38 billion plus-up through OCO.
Weeks of negotiations between Boehner, McConnell, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, have reportedly yielded a bill that would raise spending caps by $80 billion — $50 billion in the first year and $30 billion in the second year — divided equally between defense and domestic programs. The increase would be funded by offsets to include cuts to Medicare and Social Security disability benefits, as well as sales from the strategic petroleum oil reserve.
Reid, D-Nev., said Monday on the Senate floor that it was "imperative that we avoid a manufactured crisis that threatens our economy and jobs."
"I would hope that we'd come to a resolution, Democrats and Republicans, that is good for our country and the economy," Reid said. "It is past time that we do away with the harmful, draconian sequester cuts."
A White House official urged lawmakers from both parties to pass a budget based on the agreement, which achieves the White House's goals to provide sequestration relief equally on the defense and non-defense sides of the budget.
Two key deadlines are creating pressure to get a deal done: The Treasury Department has said the debt limit must be raised by Nov. 3, and the stop-gap spending measure that keeps the federal government open expires Dec. 11.
Last week, President Barack Obama vetoed the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act over what he called a Republican "gimmick" to fund defense — the use of OCO to fund base budget requirements. Though roundly criticized by Republicans, the move was a gambit to pressure Republicans into a larger budget deal, one which matches any defense increase on the non-defense side.
The question is now whether the budget deal will be approved by a House Republican caucus largely divided between defense hawks and fiscal hawks. Turner's letter earlier this month was "a shot across the bow" aimed at GOP fiscal hawks associated with the Freedom Caucus — credited with ousting Boehner — and a signal to GOP leadership that defense hawks control a large voting bloc, said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The letter sends a message that there are a larger number of defense hawks than fiscal hawks, and, really, it's up to the leadership and Ryan, if he gets the nod, to say we're going to press forward with something not everyone supports," Harrison said.
Last month, five powerful military trade associations signed a letter urging congressional leadership to avoid a government shutdown or an extended continuing resolution, and instead pass a bipartisan, multiyear deal, of the sort crafted in 2013 by Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., which temporarily lifted spending caps for two years.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.