By John T. Bennett
WASHINGTON — Raising defense spending caps received nary a mention from US Senate Budget Committee leaders in prepared remarks at the start of a hearing on the White House’s 2016 budget request.
Both Chairman Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Ranking Member Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., delivered lengthy and substantive opening statements, which amounted to expressions of their budget priorities.
Enzi hit President Barack Obama for proposing “more overspending” in a budget blueprint he said would add to the massive national debt. He charged Obama with proposing to “mortgage the future to pay for the present.”
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Sanders, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, delivered a boisterous opening statement that provided a window into his likely campaign-trail message: Income inequality should be the main focus of Washington. He railed against the economic success of large corporations and wealthy individuals, saying the middle class needs help to grow its collective wages.
Some Republicans want to use the 2016 budget resolution Enzi will craft with House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., to raise defense spending caps.
But, notably, neither Enzi nor Sanders listed that tactic among their priorities for the coming budget resolution.
Enzi opened questioning of Shaun Donovan, White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director, with a line focused on America’s debt level and how the budget plan would affect that.
He also spoke of a need to take steps to help the middle class.
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That signals that both parties are more focused on a budget plan to attack the debt and help the middle class rather than swelling an annual Defense Department budget that approaches $500 billion after sequestration cuts are factored in — and is projected to grow yearly.
Sen. Chuck Grassely, R-Iowa, echoed Enzi, saying Washington “has a spending problem.”
GOP defense hawks could be facing an uphill battle within their own caucus with efforts to raise the defense caps. Many GOP senators are much more concerned with securing new federal spending cuts.
The sequester cuts did not come up until an hour into the hearing, when Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., applauded Donovan for the administration’s plan to get rid of it. But he did so while speaking about the importance of investing in non-defense functions to keep the economy vibrant.
He then stated what all Republicans oppose about any package to void sequester cuts: “I believe new revenues have to be part of the mix.”
Revenues means new federal taxes, or higher ones on corporations or wealthy taxpayers — Republicans oppose both.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also an Armed Services Committee member, went straight to defense spending, saying he agrees with the administration that the across-the-board cuts should be dissolved.
Graham said he supports a package with new revenue and a “mandatory” section that reforms domestic programs. He also warned about projections that defense spending soon could fall to 2.3 percent of gross domestic product.
Donovan said he agrees with such concerns.
Still, the panel’s leaders appeared to place other matters above raising defense spending. Rank-and-file members seemed to agree. After Graham departed, the questioning returned to economic matters, government spending and the national debt