By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — Congressional defense hawks, written off months ago by some as having lost their political punch, are gearing up for a showdown that might prove those proclamations were premature.
Lawmakers fought hard in December to secure relief from across-the-board Pentagon cuts. And they won. Weeks later, an omnibus budget containing a 2014 defense appropriations bill that some analysts calculate will pour over $600 billion — including almost $100 billion for new weapon systems — into the Defense Department’s coffers made it through both chambers of Congress. Another win.
“We won a game yesterday. We win one today, that’s two in a row. We win one tomorrow, that’s called a winning streak. It has happened before,” fictional Cleveland Indians Manager Lou Brown said in the hit 1989 movie, “Major League.”
After years of being a $600 billion target in an era of government spending cuts and deficit-reduction driven by conservative members of the once-defense friendly House Republican caucus, the defense-industrial-congressional complex is one big win away from a bona fide winning streak.
Just four months ago, the notion of a somewhat battered defense caucus on the upswing seemed nearly unthinkable — even to its leaders.
“Was I frustrated in September? Yes,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said Jan. 16 while announcing his retirement. “Do I feel better about things today? Yes.
“I think we’ve made good progress,” McKeon told reporters, pointing to passage of the December budget deal, the 2014 defense authorization bill and now the omnibus measure.
But congressional hawks know conservatives still wield influence, especially with GOP primaries looming. And they expect another charge at the Pentagon budget when Congress again battles over the debt ceiling this spring.
“There may be,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Defense News when asked if he expects calls for defense cuts in the debt-ceiling fight. “But I hope not; defense has suffered enormously under sequestration. I think they could be repelled.”
Hawks are gearing up for a fight because no one on Capitol Hill really knows yet what a deal to raise the debt ceiling will look like.
“Now that’s a very good question,” Senate Armed Services and Appropriations Defense subcommittee member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters last week.
“It’s hard to know because there are a lot of moving parts,” McCain said. “I think [Republicans will] be advocating some measures to reduce the debt, and then we’ll see if there’s an agreement or not.”
Tea party conservatives opted against pressuring GOP leaders on the budget deal and omnibus. They have made little secret of their desire to unload their stowed gunpowder during the debt-ceiling fight.
With legislative losses mounting, the tea party caucus is salivating for a win — and that means deep cuts.
“I’m voting against the $1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill for the same reason that I voted against the budget. It breaks the spending caps on defense without any real effort at reforming how the Pentagon operates,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., a House Armed Services Committee member and a Marine Corps veteran.
Coffman’s fellow tea party caucus member, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said he voted against the omnibus spending bill because “our nation is well over $17 trillion in debt.”
“This bill does not go far enough to cut spending. Unless Congress gets serious about changing the way Washington spends the people’s money, the national debt will only continue to grow and become the burden of our children and grandchildren.”
Poe targeted a specific pot of funds that largely goes directly to the US defense sector to supply weapons to a onetime US friend that isolationist tea partiers now call a foe.
“Worst of all, it allows for $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, while cutting military benefits promised to thousands of men and women who served our country,” Poe said. “Congress should not pass a budget that treats our enemies better than our heroes.”
Some lawmakers privately acknowledge the pendulum on Capitol Hill is swinging back toward so-called “establishment” members who are more interested in passing legislation and away from the tea party caucus.
For instance, two senior Senate Armed Services Committee leaders told Defense News after the budget deal passed that they felt pro-defense lawmakers are slowly regaining power lost during the past three years. Both spoke on condition of anonymity so they could be candid but not offend conservatives with whom they must work on the panel’s next Pentagon policy bill.
One congressional and defense observer noted the vote pattern in the House on the budget deal and the 2014 omnibus appropriations measure: Both passed with well over 300 of the chamber’s 435 members voting “yay.” In both cases, most of the “nay” votes were members of the tea party caucus.
In the past, the threat that less-conservative members of the GOP caucus would be punished for approving such bipartisan bills might have led Republican House Speaker Rep. John Boehner of Ohio to push for provisions or funding levels the Democratic-led Senate would have instantly rejected.
So what changed? Simply put, Boehner realizes the rightward turn of his party could hurt in November’s elections. Last month, he lashed out at conservative groups such as the influential Heritage Action for lobbying GOP members to vote against the budget deal just minutes after it was made public.
“They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” Boehner told reporters Dec. 11. “This is ridiculous!”
Since he uttered those words, the defense sector’s fortunes have dramatically changed on Capitol Hill.
No matter their political persuasion or stance on defense spending, analysts last week called the 2014 Pentagon spending measure a clear win for the Pentagon and industry.
“The final appropriation is an increase of $2.5 billion over the [fiscal] 2013, post-sequester enacted level, but a decrease of approximately $32 billion below the administration’s budget request of $552 billion,” Kingston Reif, Laicie Heeley and John Isaacs wrote for the Council for a Livable World.
“In addition, the bill provides $85.2 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations [OCO] for the war in Afghanistan, an increase of $5.8 billion above the budget request, for total national defense appropriations of $605.7 billion,” the trio wrote in a white paper. “The OCO increase softens the blow to the base Pentagon budget relative to the budget request, since OCO funding can be used to pay for activities that are normally base budget activities without breaching the budget caps.”
The lawmakers who negotiated the omnibus deal, House and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairs Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., hail the measure as clear evidence Congress is ready to get back to “regular order” after years of partisan stalemate.
“This agreement shows the American people that we can compromise and that we can govern. It puts an end to shutdown, slowdown, slamdown politics,” Mikulski said.