By JEREMY HERB
Tired of losing battles to budget hawks and the tea party, Republican defense advocates are seeking to make one of their own the leader of the largest conservative group in the House.
About two dozen members of the Republican Study Committee also sit on the Armed Services Committee, and nearly every one of those representatives has signed a letterurging the group’s founders to pick a chair who has “demonstrated a clear, principled and unequivocal voting record in support of our national security.”
The letter is just the latest salvo between two sides of the Republican party: budget-focused members who have cheered sequestration and other cost-cutting measures and defense hawks who have fought those cuts to preserve what they describe as critical military capabilities.
In recent years, budget hawks have largely won those battles — most of the sequester cuts to the Pentagon budget have stayed on the books, despite GOP leaders’ assurances that sequestration would never occur.
Now defense hawks are seeking a jumpstart on the budget wars expected next year, when sequestration could return in full. They are pushing to get a like-minded lawmaker atop the RSC, a group comprised of three-quarters of House Republicans and typically the conservative anchor in the GOP Conference.
And they’re questioning the national security credentials of presumed front-runner Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who has said he intends to run for the spot. He’s won the support of Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a former RSC chairman influential within the caucus.
But defense backers say Mulvaney’s efforts to cut Pentagon spending raise red flags — though the letter does not mention Mulvaney or any other lawmaker by name.
In 2013, Mulvaney teamed up with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, to cut $3.5 billion from the 2014 defense spending bill’s Overseas Contingency Operations budget, which funds war operations. The amendment narrowly passed 215-206 — thanks to the backing of 177 Democrats and just 38 Republicans. Nearly 190 Republicans voted against it.
In 2012, Mulvaney sponsored a successful amendment to cut $1 billion from the defense spending bill. A majority of Republicans opposed the legislation.
“Those votes do concern me,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), one of the lawmakers who came up with the idea for the letter. “It is also true that I hold Mick Mulvaney to be a personal friend. … But unfortunately, if we act like we’re just a social club and we just support our friends and we don’t look at issues — what they are and how they affect Americans — we fall short of our duty.”
Franks said in an interview he rejects the notion that the government cannot reduce the deficit while maintaining robust defense spending.
“There’s a lot of people that believe you cannot be both committed to defense and fiscal austerity, and I am convinced that you can,” he said.
The RSC chairmanship became vacant when former chairman Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) was elected House majority whip earlier this year. Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) was selectedas RSC chairman in June on the condition that he not run again next year.
Mulvaney’s chief of staff, Al Simpson, said the South Carolina Republican is committed to a strong national defense but also focused on cutting the federal budget and reducing the deficit. Simpson said Mulvaney has targeted the war spending budget because some of those funds belong in the base budget. Even so, he stressed that if Mulvaney is elected RSC chairman, he would help bridge the gap between defense and fiscal hawks.
The dispute over defense spending between the conservative lawmakers highlights the tensions that have played out since the Budget Control Act was passed in 2011, setting sequestration in motion. Many defense hawks — including retiring Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) — voted for the law believing GOP leadership assurances that sequestration would never actually happen.
“HASC Republicans were burned so badly after the empty promise that sequestration would never happen that their wounds are still fresh and raw years later,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “This group will not take anything for granted nor assume their issues in defense policy have a friend elsewhere in the party, whether that’s leadership, other committees like Budget, or groups like the RSC.”
In the letter, the Armed Services members argue cutting defense could have a negative impact on the national debt.
“While we remain deeply dedicated to reining in government spending, we believe that decimating the Department of Defense budget not only endangers our national security, but will diminish America’s environment of productivity and ultimately exacerbate our long term debt crisis,” wrote the 25 lawmakers.
The letter was sent to the RSC Founders Committee, which makes an endorsement for RSC chairman before members vote. While the Founders Committee has plenty of sway, its pick doesn’t always win. In 2012, the committee endorsed Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), but Scalise won the top spot.
One defense industry official said contractors aren’t fans of Mulvaney, but they don’t have a favorite among the potential candidates.
“Mulvaney has been a thorn in defense industry’s side for a while,” said the defense official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal congressional discussions. “He is no ally — not only of the defense industry but of defense leaders in Congress.”
Reps. Andy Harris of Maryland and Louie Gohmert of Texas have also said they plan to run. Like Mulvaney, neither is on the Armed Services Committee.
The RSC does not have an official place in Republican leadership, but it is designed to push the Republican Conference in a conservative direction. The election for the next RSC chair is expected after the November midterms.
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), another Armed Services member who led the letter to the Founders Committee, said the Armed Services members want to be pro-active.
“We’re just making sure that our concerns as far as a balanced leadership are looked at in this selection process,” Wittman told POLITICO. “We’re not asking that it go to one extreme or the other, but we want to make sure that’s an important part of the decision.”
Lauren French contributed to this report.