By Christopher Harress
When the Republican Party swept to power on Capitol Hill earlier this month, many expected that caps on military spending would be lifted. However, according to outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, one of the main architects of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) that established the caps, just because the GOP is now in control of both houses of Congress doesn’t mean military sequestration, as those caps are called, can be lifted.
Any change, Cantor said Saturday, can only be achieved with bipartisan support in Congress.
“I don’t see a path where you’re going to get bipartisan relief on BCA caps,” he said, referring to the spending caps enacted in 2011. “There needs to be bipartisan agreement even though there’s a Republican majority in Congress.”
To reverse the caps, there needs to be a 60-vote majority in the Senate, which is unlikely given the 53-44 split in favor of the Republicans, with two independents making up the rest and one seat still unassigned. According to Cantor, only a national emergency on the scale of 9/11 would prompt Democrats to cross the aisle allowing enough votes to reverse the caps.
There was hope in Congress that the BCA, which cut $1 trillion from federal agency budgets over 10 years, might be amended to allow greater flexibility for the Pentagon to deal with a multitude of threats, including a newly aggressive Russia and the emergence of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in the Middle East.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, among the most ardent Republican military hawks and the man who will likely take over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, is determined to see military spending increased. “We have to fix it,” McCain said Saturday to a forum comprised of mostly Republicans and military executives at the Reagan Presidential Library. To help him do that, McCain has a number of pro-defense Republican Senate colleagues working to get rid of the sequester. They include Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and newly elected Sens. Tom Cotton from North Carolina and Dan Sullivan from Alaska. “I promise you that we will make it [fixing sequestration] our highest priority,” McCain said.
But that scenario clashes with budget realities and with a Democratic side of Congress that would want to reverse budget cuts in other areas if defense gets a reprieve. “We support lifting sequestration also in other areas like health care and education,” Democratic Texas congressman Joaquin Castro said. “Can we have an agreement where we lift it for the military and for other parts of the budget? That would be the foundation of an agreement if there is one.”
But while discussion about lifting the BCA continues, the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act is being passed back and forth between the White House and the Pentagon before going in front of the Senate and House next year. Military officials already believe that it will exceed spending caps by around $60 billion, according to a former defense official who spoke anonymously Sunday with Defense News.
The problem is, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work, that Republicans refuse to cut anything at all from the defense budget, yet favor the spending caps, which by his estimation means there will be a $70 billion funding gap. McCain and others have, for example, opposed retiring the A-10 ground attack plane, which the Pentagon wanted to kill. The venerable U-2 spy plane was also saved from retirement, as were some Navy ships, by Congress.
“If you add up all of the things that Congress told us no, after we submitted our budget, it’s $31 billion in noes,” Work said on Sept. 30. “No, you can’t get rid of the A-10. No, you can’t get rid of the U-2. No, you can’t get rid of those cruisers. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. And then, no, you can’t do the compensation reform.”