It is unclear whether boosting Pentagon spending caps is a priority for House and Senate Republican leaders.
By John T. Bennett
WASHINGTON — Many US defense insiders are hoping for another federal budget deal that again eases military spending limits, but crafting a deal will resemble a political Rubik’s Cube.
And, in a potential blow to the Defense Department’s constant quest for more dollars, a key player is signalling support for leaving all spending caps as-is.
As defense insiders and their allies on Capitol Hill looked toward the new GOP-controlled Congress, many eagerly predicted Republicans will quickly pass a budget resolution that boosts a $535 billion cap on Pentagon spending for 2016.
They were buoyed by chesty talk in December from incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., who has placed addressing sequestration as his top priority.
Yet as the 113th Congress finished its work, the members who multiple sources from all political stripes say are the keys to boosting the defense cap and blunting sequestration’s blow said nary a word about such a budget resolution.
What’s more, the members who crafted and forced through the last cap-raising budget deal, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have moved on.
The chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees in the last Congress came up with the much-ballyhooed Ryan-Murray deal. But Ryan will lead the House Ways and Means Committee in the new Congress, and Murray will be the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
That late-2013 deal was passed by both chambers and signed by President Barack Obama, in part, because of the political gravitas of its authors. Ryan was the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee and Murray was a widely respected member of her party’s leadership team.
Both now will be focused on other matters, including Ryan finally getting the chance to push major federal tax reform.
Their new roles mean that what is increasingly being referred to as a “Ryan-Murray II” package would really be a “Price-Enzi” package. Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., are stepping into their shoes as leaders of the budget committees.
“It really is unclear just where Price and Enzi stand on raising the defense caps,” said Roger Zakheim, a former senior House Armed Services Committee counsel and now with Washington’s Covington and Burling law firm. “It’s really a question of where is leadership on this, and where does defense rank in their priorities.”
House and Senate leaders from both parties were mum on the shape of a 2016 budget resolution, and how it should treat Pentagon spending. And while the Senate’s Democratic and Republican leaders will change jobs, the four congressional leaders and president that have for years failed to strike a sequester-nixing fiscal deal will remain.
And those who will write a budget resolution, as the new Congress is seated this week, have signaled they support keeping all federal spending levels within the confines set out in the 2011 Budget Control Act.
“The congressman appreciates the concerns with the cuts that the military has been facing and has said he believes we need to address spending priorities within the overall caps,” a Price aide said.
The incoming House Budget Committee chairman also is mulling two ideas that sources say would meet resistance in the Senate, where GOP leaders would need around six Democratic votes to pass a Price-Enzi compromise.
“Possible ideas that could be up for consideration include finding savings in mandatory spending within the 10-year window to offset increases in defense spending,” the aide said, “or eliminating the firewall between defense and the rest of discretionary spending so there is more flexibility to address priorities and needs.”
The aide added that Price is on record expressing a belief that “we need to have a budget that reflects and resources the mission our military men and women are given.”
An Enzi spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
The incoming Senate Budget Committee boss has made few public comments about how lawmakers should address pending defense cuts in a new budget plan — or if they should at all.
In an October 2013 statement, Enzi referred to the national debt and deficit as “the real problem.”
“The debt isn’t as tangible to folks as a government shutdown, but the shutdown is only a symptom,” Enzi said at that time. “I sit up nights worrying about our nation’s debt and how it will affect Wyoming children, my children and grandchildren.”
And in a March 2013 Facebook post, he lobbied for deeper spending cuts, writing: “We’ve got shell games and sideshows designed to distract people from the fact that in 2008 we were spending less on most of these programs than the level the sequester would put them.” He also accused the Obama administration with making the effects of the across-the-board cuts worse by cutting crucial or far-reaching programs first.
The chairmen’s comments indicate any budget resolution might boost defense spending levels by cutting even more from domestic programs favored by Democrats.
Zakheim predicts Republican leaders could face a choice between using a tactic called budget reconciliation to increase military spending or to tackle a favorite target.
“The question becomes, is defense a top priority for leadership, and right now, I would say it’s not a top priority,” he said, adding Republican bosses could “decide to do reconciliation, but only to deal with Obamacare.”
Another former congressional defense aide, the American Enterprise Institute’s Mackenzie Eaglen, says it likely will take months until Price, Enzi and their ranking members can agree to a final budget resolution for fiscal 2016.
“If the first draft of any deal is offered without senior Democratic support from key players like Schumer and Sanders, then it will fail to pass or it will be vetoed,” said Eaglen, referring to leadership member Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and incoming Budget Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
“It’s likely Republicans will seek to pass a favorably conservative deal first and let it stall out to appease their right flank than try from the start to work a truly bipartisan compromise that both sides will like but not love,” Eaglen said.
“The initial GOP budget will seek to only increase defense caps while balancing the entire federal budget in 10 years from the Budget Committee, and in four years from the Republican Steering Committee,” she said. “This means most in the Democratic party will say no from the start — no matter how much members want to see defense relief.”
Under such a scenario, a bipartisan budget resolution then would become the goal.
“Once the GOP moves to a compromise [budget] deal,” Eaglen said, “they will quickly find that it will be much more difficult for the GOP to find agreeable offsets with Senator Sanders than it was in the past with Senator Murray, who had spent time working and debating draft deals for years with members like Paul Ryan through entities like the Super Committee.”