Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) says his proposal to cap discretionary spending won’t hurt defense programs, but fellow Republican lawmakers are skeptical of that claim and warn the Pentagon may see its budget effectively frozen while the nation faces growing national security threats from Russia and China.
While Republican lawmakers have voiced general support for McCarthy, some of them have misgivings about what a deficit reduction deal will mean for one of their top priorities: national security.
“Once they do the caps, the big fights in the appropriations process will be how money gets prioritized and allocated. For sure, the Republican priority is going to be national security, you know that,” Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said.
McCarthy and other House Republicans insist that cuts will be focused on non-defense domestic discretionary programs. But those programs account for less than 20 percent of annual federal spending, and Democrats say they will insist on equal treatment of defense and non-defense programs.
McCarthy told reporters Thursday that “the Pentagon has to actually have more resources” and noted, “we live in a very dangerous world.”
And House Republicans indicated last month that they didn’t want to cut defense funding at all and instead wanted to shift the cuts to non-defense domestic programs.
But key Republican lawmakers worry that any cap on discretionary spending as part of a deal to raise the debt limit will cap or even cut defense programs compared to the nation’s 5 percent annual inflation rate.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned “on the defense side we’re going to want to know before there’s a vote, ‘How do you intend to protect our national interest?’”
Rounds argued that ensuring a strong national defense is the “number one constitutional responsibility we have.”
He said if the proponents of a debt limit deal “can answer those” questions appropriately, “then they’ll have support from people who care deeply about defense.”
But if they can’t make a commitment to protect defense spending, “then you’re going to have to have some further discussions about protections.”
“I came here because I saw what was happening to our national defense. We needed to bring it back up to speed. We’ve not caught up to where we ought to be,” he said, referring to his decision to run for Senate in 2014.
Defense spending has emerged as a major point of contention between White House negotiators and McCarthy’s deputies as they scramble to reach a deal to extend the nation’s borrowing authority before the Treasury Department runs out of money sometime in June.
House Republican negotiators have rejected a proposal from the White House to freeze both defense and non-defense discretionary programs, knowing that it would face a hard time picking up Republican support in both chambers.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an influential ally of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), says Congress needs to enact substantial defense spending increases at a time when many national security experts see China posing a bigger threat to the nation.
“I do not think that we should be talking about cutting the defense budget at all right now. If anything, substantial defense increases,” Cotton told The Hill earlier this year after a Chinese surveillance balloon floated across the country, creating a national security panic.
McConnell later said he “absolutely” agreed with Cotton that Congress should preserve its flexibility to substantially increase spending to defend the nation.
“The defense budget ought to reflect the nature of the threat,” he told reporters in late February, citing “the ongoing challenge of meeting China in the future” as well as the need to support Ukraine in its war against Russia.
The Limit, Save, Grow Act, the debt limit increase bill House Republicans passed last month, would reduce discretionary spending to fiscal 2022 levels and then cap growth to 1 percent annually over the next decade.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) warned “that’s not the way to ensure our national security.”
He warned that “cutting the State Department as they want to would be a disadvantage to our military, particularly when deployed.”
“There are a lot of federal agencies that contribute directly or indirectly to national security,” he said. “They’re trying to set up a zero-sum game: defense wins, domestic loses. But it doesn’t make sense because national security embraces so many different agencies.”
Senate Republicans are on the defensive at the moment in the national security debate because Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) has held up more than 184 career military promotions for weeks to protest the Pentagon’s abortion policies.
Seven former secretaries of Defense wrote a letter to the Senate this month warning that leaving senior positions unfilled would “send the wrong message to our adversaries and could weaken our deterrence.”
McConnell said shortly afterward that he did not support Tuberville’s hold on military promotions.
Now Republicans are also looking at having to play defense on defense spending cuts if McCarthy prevails advancing a debt limit deal with strict caps on spending.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has warned Republicans that he will insist on parity between defense and non-defense programs so that domestic social spending doesn’t face the full brunt of reductions.
Schumer told reporters in March that “Democrats have always believed in parity” when asked about defense and non-defense spending levels.
“There’s virtual unanimity that if we’re going to raise defense spending, which has happened in the last few budgets, that we raise domestic spending in equal amount — at least in equal amount — because we think those things are so, so important to the security of this country, the economic security, the political security but even the national security,” he said.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted that Republicans have won bigger increases for defense spending than non-defense spending but warned it’s hard to predict what will happen this year if the top-line spending number is frozen or cut back to its fiscal 2022 level, as McCarthy wants.
“We’ve tried to have parity in terms of their increases, the last few years we haven’t quite achieved that,” he said of Democratic efforts to tie defense and non-defense programs together. “It remains to be seen.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimate that total discretionary funding will account for 33 percent of program costs in the 2024 budget, with defense programs accounting for 16 percent and non-defense discretionary programs accounting for 17 percent.
David Reich, a senior fellow for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive-leaning nonpartisan research and policy institute, argued that it’s unrealistic to expect to make significant headway toward reducing the deficit by focusing only on non-defense discretionary programs.
“A serious approach to deficits must include increasing revenues and should focus both on boosting economic growth and expanding opportunity. House Republicans’ proposal to cut discretionary funding fails on both counts,” he said.