By Jeremy Herb
It’s hawk vs. hawk when it comes to the new defense budget cuts.
Defense hawks are decrying reductions in Pentagon spending, but their budget hawk brethren see more fat to be trimmed.
Both sides are gearing themselves up for a prolonged fight over the size and shape of the military as the war in Afghanistan winds down and more sequester cuts loom.
The intra-party fight among Republican factions will play out in the coming months as lawmakers decide whether to try to boost the Pentagon’s budget this year.
They also must decide whether to roll back additional automatic cuts known as the sequester that are planned in 2016.
The Pentagon this week announced plans to reduce the size of the Army to its lowest level since 1940, a year before the nation entered World War II. It also wants to cut benefits for troops and to retire fleets of planes.
The cuts were made to fit the Pentagon’s 2015 base budget under a $496 billion spending ceiling.
But the plan presented by the Pentagon would break ceilings set by the sequester starting in 2016. To fit under the ceilings through 2019, the Pentagon would have to cut an additional $115 billion over the next five years.
Defense hawks want to ensure that doesn’t happen, and are determined to put money back into the 2015 defense budget.
“The Department of Defense is looking at a cliff for 2016, and they’re cutting a glide-path through 2015 that was not intended in the two-year budget deal,” Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), a senior Armed Services member, told The Hill. “So our goal is to try to give that certainty back in 2016 and raise the lines up in 2015 so we can ensure they can have that certainty and we don’t hurt our national security.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) vowed to kill the defense budget request outright.
“We are going to kill it, not let it happen,” Graham said this week, adding it was, “ill-conceived, ill-designed, bad defense policy, detached from reality — I am running out of adjectives.”
Defense-minded lawmakers have warned that reducing the size and scope of the military at a time of growing threats endangers U.S. national security.
Budget hawks, however, have cheered the sequester for actually reducing discretionary spending and taking a chunk out the deficit.
Chris Preble, a defense analyst at the libertarian CATO Institute, said the cuts that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined were “on the right track” to shrinking the size of the defense budget.
“The defense hawks are going to fight it,” Preble said. “They’re going to fight both the particulars and they’re going to fight for more money, and I do think they’re going to bump up against another group that’s determined to hold the line on spending.”
Defense hawks have been frustrated with members of their own party the past two years who supported the sequester cuts andstifled the GOP-led effort to roll back the reductions.
Twice in the past two years GOP fiscal hawks have teamed up with liberals to trim the size of the defense budget on the House floor: Voting to cut $1 billion from the defense topline in 2012 and to cut $3.5 billion from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund last year.
“It was a great concern to me that members of our conference, as we walked through the full ramifications of sequestration, there were many who started to say they wanted every single dollar of all cuts, including those in defense,” said Armed Services member Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.).
Not all GOP defense hawks are convinced they can overcome the political obstacles within their party and with Democrats, however.
House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told The Hill he doesn’t expect to try to bust the Pentagon’s spending caps in 2015, arguing it wasn’t feasible politically.
“We have a number, so throwing that out there is just kind of an exercise in futility,” McKeon said. “I think my record is pretty well established, I think the line is too low, but I’m also realistic and I don’t think it’s probably going to be changed.”
McKeon, who is retiring at the end of this term, said this week he sees little hope of the sequester being reversed in 2016 either.
Defense hawks who are vowing to fight the spending caps have a $26 billion target to shoot at this year.
As part of the budget, Obama is including a $56 billion investment fund above the spending caps that includes $26 billion in defense spending.
Hagel said this week that money would go toward boosting readiness that has been eroded under sequestration in the past two years.
But even getting that funding passed will be politically difficult, because it’s tied to additional domestic spending that Republicans are likely to oppose.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said most Republicans won’t be willing to give DoD more money if it means agreeing to more domestic discretionary spending.
“I think that’s the first barometer of where is the party: Can they agree to the principle of the investment fund to help defense if it means they have to help non-defense?” she said.