With the United States embroiled in three wars and global instability on the rise, the House GOP is entrenched in an internal battle over whether to push for cuts to the defense budget next year. The battle pits the head of the Armed Services Committee against Tea Party freshmen, with the House GOP leadership caught squarely in the middle.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) is making an effort this week to prove he is taking a hard look at scrubbing the defense budget. His weekly online contest YouCut, which asks the public to vote by text message for the spending cut Congress should bring to a vote each week, now features three budget cutting options that would take money out of the Pentagon's coffers.
One option would cut the Pentagon's printing budget by 10 percent, allegedly saving $180 million over five years. Option number two would cut the budget for Pentagon studies and analysis, with the goal of saving $120 million over five years. The third option would deny pay raises to Pentagon employees who receive bad performance evaluations, allegedly saving $80 million from fiscal 2012 through fiscal 2016.
The three defense cuts were written by freshman GOP Rep. Allen West (R-FL), the former Army lieutenant colonel in Iraq who resigned amid an investigation into a prisoner interrogation. West is now a leading voice on military matters for Tea Party-supported fiscal hawks, who are punching above their weight in the ongoing budget struggle.
House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) also supports West's goal of cutting wasteful spending from the defense budget. But the two congressmen are on opposing sides of the larger fight over the defense budget, and Cantor is stuck right in the middle.
Asked if he supported overall defense cuts, West said, "I think you have to. I think that nothing can be sacrosanct." McKeon, on the other hand, sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) on March 10, which was also signed by 29 other congressmen, arguing that "We should not jeopardize the security of the nation by accepting across the board cuts to national defense without regard to inherent strategic risks."
The House Republican's bill for funding the Pentagon for the rest of fiscal 2011, which McKeon ultimately voted for, would cut $16 billion from the Defense Department's request for funding -- cuts Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly said would be devastating for the military.
But even though that funding hasn't been disbursed, the House GOP is also debating internally whether to cut the president's fiscal 2012 request for the Pentagon, which totals $670.6 billion. The overall figure includes $553 billion for the base budget and $117.8 billion for overseas operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
GOP Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-IL) gets to make that call next week when he unveils the House GOP's initial fiscal 2012 spending levels. We're told by three Hill sources that Ryan will propose a Pentagon funding level exactly equal to the president's request, taking neither the side of the defense hawks or the Tea Party defense cutters.
Tom Donnelly, director of the Center for Military Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Cable that Ryan's proposal will only be the beginning of the debate inside the GOP. Both sides are already preparing to propose amendments to raise or lower the Pentagon's budget.
The GOP leadership is just trying to placate both sides, according to Donnelly.
"They don't want another week's worth of stories about how they don't have control of their own party. They don't have strong feelings one way or the other," he said.
McKeon and his allies are on the defensive because they saw their deal with the GOP House leadership regarding the fiscal 2011 budget evaporate.
"Essentially McKeon and the leadership got ambushed by the RSC [Republican Study Committee] and Tea Party libertarian types," said Donnelly. "McKeon thought he had everything squared away with leadership but leadership couldn't hold the line."
The stakes are higher for 2012, because the GOP's presidential candidates will also want to weigh in.
"Let's also think about this in the context of the 2012 election: Do we really want to be weaker than Obama on national defense?" Donnelly asked. "It's a real concern for a range of presidential candidates."
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.