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Debt ceiling fight will imperil defense spending

Oct. 7, 2013 - 10:24AM   |  
Congressional Leaders Meet With Obama At White Hou
House Speaker John Boehner speaks to the media after a meeting with President Barack Obama about the government shutdown on Oct. 2. The government will reach its debt ceiling on Oct. 17. (Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — In the week following the U.S. government shutdown, tea party Republicans are now poised for a new attack on federal spending as lawmakers and the White House battle over the nation’s borrowing limit.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has put Congress on notice: The United States will hit its borrowing ceiling on Oct. 17. Far-right House Republicans have been salivating for a debt-ceiling fight for months, eager to take on what the chamber’s top Republican calls “Washington’s spending problem.”

A dramatic few weeks of political wrangling that led to a government shutdown saw House Republicans go after President Barack Obama’s health care reform law. And while it’s likely they will take that fight to a coming debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling, House GOP leaders and rank-and-file members also want more spending reductions.

“On the debt limit, we’re going to introduce a plan that ties important spending cuts and pro-growth reforms to a debt-limit increase,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who many in Washington view as being driven by the tea party wing of his caucus.

“We’re not going to ignore Washington’s spending problem,” Boehner said. “So we need to strengthen our economy for all Americans, and we need to deal with Washington’s spending problem.”

Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate defense aide now with the American Enterprise Institute, said there’s no way out of the “grand bargain box without more defense budget cuts.”

“It is certainly possible, if not attractive, for policy makers to add more defense cuts beyond banked amounts — including sequester — as part of a debt deal,” Eaglen said. “But they would likely be the backloaded, fuzzy math, let-another-Congress-solve-this kind of cuts.”

However the new possible defense cuts might be structured, the embattled Boehner is making clear that spending-averse House Republicans are ready for a fight with the Democratic president they so revile.

“Now, the president says, ‘I’m not going to negotiate [over the debt ceiling],’ ” Boehner said. “Well, I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way.”

Last week, a fight over re-opening the federal government began to merge with the embryonic debt-ceiling debate.

Conservative House Republicans took to the House floor to hammer home their opposition to what they see as Washington’s “out-of-control spending,” as Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., called it.

For conservative Republicans, the federal government’s annual spending and the nation’s $17 trillion debt level shows it is neither, as Mica said on the floor, “accountable” nor “responsible.”

“We must be responsible stewards for the public. But the spending spree in Washington has to stop,” Mica said in a floor speech. “Republicans have held the line. We need to hold the line responsibly. We can cut waste; we can cut inefficiencies; and we can make government accountable to the people.”

Georgia GOP Rep. Jack Kingston appeared on the House floor with a broadside on Obama.

“Under the current president, the national debt now is 100 percent of the [gross domestic product]. For every $1 we spend, 42 cents is borrowed,” Kingston said. “That’s bad enough, but now the president offers no reform to bend the spending curve whatsoever.”

White House officials and Democratic sources counter such charges by pointing to the Obama administration’s fiscal 2014 budget plan, which proposes a number of spending cuts, policy reforms and new tax revenue. That kind of plan, the White House says, would end sequestration.

But Democratic lawmakers and sources say many conservative House Republicans are fine with slashing $50 billion from planned Pentagon spending through 2021 via the sequestration cuts.

“House Republicans left the country in limbo, and they embraced the severe and mindless sequester cuts as their spending strategy,” said Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas.

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole is the deputy whip of the House Republican Conference, meaning he has the pulse of the caucus. And he confirmed House GOP members are fine with post-sequestration funding levels.

“That’s where we’re at right now,” Cole told Defense News on Sept. 27. “I think we’ve made it clear we’re willing to negotiate where the cuts come from, but we’re not going to give up the savings.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said that “there’s a real appetite in the House” to lock in sequester funding levels for most federal agencies.

Bishop and other members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees desperately hope an eventual debt deal will spare the Defense Department from more cuts or even having its budget set at sequestration levels.

But Bishop and Senate Armed Services Committee members in recent weeks have acknowledged they are in for an uphill battle with the House’s ultra-conservative Republican faction.

House Republican leaders have floated a debt-ceiling bill that proposes tax reforms, as well as a slew of mandatory spending cuts and health program cuts.

Included in the GOP’s reported wish list are things like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security cuts. Senate Democrats and Obama have expressed opposition to those kinds of domestic program cuts, meaning much of the House GOP’s debt bill would be dead on arrival.

And since the Pentagon’s base and war budgets are projected to again top $600 billion a year even with the sequestration cuts, defense spending again becomes a huge target.

That’s one reason budget analysts such as Eaglen and Gordon Adams, a former White House budget official, believe Pentagon budget cuts have only begun to be cut.

Eaglen, however, believes it’s possible lawmakers and the White House in coming weeks will agree, as part of a debt-ceiling deal, to “restructure the slope and pace of sequestration’s defense reductions as part of a deal to soften the blow to the Pentagon.

“Members dislike the steep drop-off of sequestration cuts in 2014 much more than they dislike the overall amount of defense cuts planned over the next decade,” Eaglen said.

As the debt-ceiling debate begins, conservatives believe the American people are behind them.

“A clear majority of Americans believes that imposing a firm limit on borrowing with spending cuts is the only chance for Congress to kick its gluttonous spending habit,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Michael Sargent.

Citing a recent Bloomberg poll, Sargent said a “majority of Americans oppose President Obama’s demand that Congress raise the debt ceiling without any spending cuts — by a margin of nearly two to one: 61 percent of Americans surveyed.”

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