Pentagon Funding in Question After House Fight over Speakership

Then U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Then U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stands in a U.S. Army Stryker vehicle during a congressional delegation visit, Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, April 11, 2022. (U.S. Army Photo by Pfc. Joshua Linfoot)

The protracted battle over electing a new House speaker -- and the concessions Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., made to hard-liners in his party to finally win the job -- is raising concerns that the defense budget could see billions of dollars in cuts after years of booming increases.

One of the promises McCarthy made to win over his critics was to trim overall government spending to the dollar figure it was in fiscal 2022 -- a more than $100 billion difference compared to this year. Republicans and Democrats will no doubt be divided on how to get there, potentially putting the Pentagon's relatively large budget in the crosshairs.

Some Republicans are stressing the cuts don't have to come from any specific agency, such as the Defense Department, and are promising that other domestic funding will be slashed rather than military funding. But the Senate, which is still controlled by Democrats, and President Joe Biden are unlikely to accept such significant domestic cuts.

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That raises the prospect of either cuts to defense or, just as alarming to the Pentagon, gridlock that results in a government shutdown.

The possibility of McCarthy's speakership side deals hitting the defense budget led one Republican on Monday night to vote against a package of rules that will govern House conduct in the recently started 118th Congress, though the rules themselves did not contain the spending concessions.

"This has a proposed billions of dollar cut to defense, which I think is a horrible idea," Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, who was the only GOP "no" vote on the rules package, said on CBS News' "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "When you have aggressive Russia and Ukraine, you've got a growing threat of China in the Pacific -- you know, I'm going to visit Taiwan here in a couple of weeks -- how am I going to look at our allies in the eye and say, 'I need you to increase your defense budget, but yet America is going to decrease ours?'"

Gonzales spent 20 years in the Navy as a career cryptologist and rose to the rank of master chief petty officer, according to his office.

The Defense Department is the largest federal agency and could make an otherwise tempting target if lawmakers must find billions to slash. For this fiscal year, the defense budget, which is mostly Pentagon funding but also includes some non-Pentagon spending such as Department of Energy nuclear weapons programs, is roughly $858 billion, a $75 billion increase over 2022.

Over the past couple of years, Republican defense hawks successfully fought for multibillion-dollar increases in Pentagon spending even as Democrats had control of both chambers of Congress and the White House -- a scenario that progressive lawmakers hoped would lead to defense budget cuts.

The increases have largely gone to weapons programs, but have also included personnel costs, such as the 4.6% raise service members got at the beginning of the year.

For years, GOP defense hawks have argued Pentagon spending needs to increase about 3% to 5% over inflation every year in order to keep pace with threats posed by China and Russia.

But McCarthy and the House Republicans will now have to contend with their party's budget hawks and hard-liners, who showed their strength last week as they forced the House to take more votes on the speakership than the U.S. has seen since before the Civil War.

In the meantime, defense hawks in the House are brushing aside concerns that Pentagon spending will shrink.

"I'm going to be advocating to meet our threats. That's going to drive my decision on what I propose for spending," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said Tuesday. Pressed by if he's confident defense won't ultimately be cut, he said he "feel[s] good" that "everybody understands" the threats facing the country.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, similarly vowed that she "won't support" any cuts to defense.

Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., who considered voting against the House rules package over concerns about McCarthy's side deals but ultimately supported the rules, said Tuesday she received assurances in a closed-door meeting of the Republican conference that spending decisions will go through the normal appropriations process, which will be led by defense spending supporters such as Granger.

But Mace left open the possibility that defense could take a hit.

"There are some members that want to cut spending across the board, and that would include defense," Mace told reporters. "There's some members that don't want to cut defense spending. But any notion of spending with regards to the DoD will go through regular order. So there's been no handshake that this is a guarantee."

Indeed, some members have argued defense should not be spared from cuts.

"We got a $32 trillion debt. Everything has to be on the table," Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Sunday on Fox News. "Maybe focus on getting rid of all the woke policies in our military. We'd have the money we need to make sure our troops get the pay raise they deserve. We'd have the weapon systems and the training that needs to be done so we're ready to deal with our adversaries around the planet."

Democrats have been accusing Republicans of setting up the conditions for a government shutdown with their spending plans. Top Appropriations Committee Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut said in a statement that McCarthy's deal with party hard-liners "kills the 2024 government funding process before it has even started" and puts support for veterans and military families at risk.

Shutdowns are anathema to the Pentagon in part because service members have to continue working without paychecks unless Congress passes separate legislation to keep paying them. Other routine matters, such as permanent change of station moves, are also disrupted in shutdowns.

A slide McCarthy showed GOP lawmakers in Tuesday's conference meeting on his budget and spending plans said he would refuse negotiations with the Senate on spending bills unless there are cuts to non-defense spending, according to a picture of the slide tweeted by CNN reporter Annie Grayer.

In an apparent veiled response to House Republicans, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, the leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee, released a statement Tuesday pledging to work on "funding the government in a responsible and bipartisan manner."

But the House Republicans who extracted concessions from McCarthy are defending their plans to cut spending.

"There is no specifics saying we're going to do anything about defense spending," Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, told reporters. "If my wife and I agree to cap spending at our '22 levels, am I going to go stop paying my mortgage? No, I'm going to pay my mortgage. And then I'll sit down and decide, well, can we take a vacation? What car are we gonna have? Are we going to keep patching together our 15-year-old car? Like every other family.

"But this House body and Republican conference needs to agree that we have to spend responsibly," he said.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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