Obama Punts, Republicans Bunt on Defense Budget
Policy + Politics

Obama Punts, Republicans Bunt on Defense Budget

John Moore/Getty Images

This week’s wide open House budget debate left no doubt that the new GOP majority means business when it comes to cutting government.  The Republican proposal for funding the federal departments through the rest of the fiscal year took aim at everything from the arts and Amtrak to NASA and the National Institutes of Health.

Republicans sent mixed signals, though, on the big question of whether they intend to put the nation’s half-trillion-dollar-a- year defense establishment under the same cost-cutting regimen. And they left unclear whether their crusade against big government reaches beyond the water’s edge, to the U.S. government’s vast military footprint abroad.

The legislation on the floor slashes dozens of domestic programs but largely protects defense. The bill would provide $516.2 billion, up $8.1 billion over last year. Even so, there is restiveness in conservative ranks. That was already evident when 11,000 conservative activists converged on the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last weekend. Newly elected Republican star Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who favors reducing U.S. military commitments abroad, drew an enthusiastic overflow crowd. For the second year in a row, his dad, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, won the CPAC straw poll for GOP nominee for president in 2012.

During this week’s House budget debate, Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., lamented U.S. policy in Afghanistan and defended his amendment to cut $400 million from the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund, which finances roads and other projects.

Jones cited a recent inspector general report that detailed significant fraud, waste and abuse in the road and school-building program. “I do not know why in the world we cannot make the statement to the American people that we're going to see that the $400 million going to a dishonest, dysfunctional government overseas can be returned to help reduce the debt and deficit of this country or even returned to (our) cities and counties,” he said.

The Jones amendment went down to defeat, 294 to 135, and it garnered only 36 Republican votes.  But the supporters included some veteran GOP players, signaling a readiness to provide cover for less established Republicans who may also be troubled by U.S. overreach abroad. They included Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin, who chairs the crime, terrorism and homeland security subcommittee on the Judiciary Committee; Michigan’s Fred Upton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee; Florida Rep. John Mica , chairman of the Transportation Committee; and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

On Thursday, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., proposed an amendment that would set up a House-Senate study group to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Wolf asked: "Are we fighting this war the right way? Are we doing the right thing? We need fresh eyes on the target.”

Such concerns reflect polling data. A recent Gallup survey found strong support (61 percent) among Republicans for "speeding up withdrawal from Afghanistan." Nearly three out of four independent voters favored this shift. Among all those polled, speeding up withdrawal ranked third among all actions they hoped this Congress would take.

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday on the 2012 defense budget, freshman Rep. Christopher Gibson, R-N.Y., a retired Army colonel who has received four Bronze Stars, told Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "I personally think we are overcommitted…I think there needs to be more of a national discussion on this." Gates took a different view: "I am a firm believer that our forward posture is fundamental to our alliance relationships,” he said.

Some of these concerns appear to be taking the form of Republican worries about waste in the Pentagon budget. That was evident in House passage of an amendment deleting $450 million for a General Electric Corp. back-up engine for the F-35 joint strike fighter. The earmark for the engine had been backed by Republican and Democratic leaders. It was offered by second-term Florida Republican Thomas Rooney and garnered 110 Republican votes.

It was an unusual defeat for a powerful defense contractor and its supporters in the House. Efforts to cut funding for the long-embattled V-22 aircraft program and the Marine's Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle were overwhelmingly defeated late Thursday.

“I think the point has to be made here that the defense budget is not sacrosanct. We can't say if it is defense, it is all good," said Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. His amendment to reduce the number of Pentagon boards and commissions would have saved $18.75 million and was only narrowly defeated, 223 to 207.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, a freshman Republican from Kansas, sought unsuccessfully to eliminate $502 million for companies that attempt to sell innovative technologies that the Pentagon has not asked for. Pompeo is no anti-defense liberal. He finished first in his class at West Point, served in the Army, attended Harvard Law School and started his own company, Thayer Aerospace.

"We need smaller government,” Pompeo said. “Government doesn't do a good job of picking out which one of those technologies will be successful."

Sixty-nine Republicans joined him in support, but the sole Democratic vote for his amendment came from Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank.