UPDATED: McKeon Sets HASC Priorities; Calls For Spending on "Threats of Tomorrow"
In the most surprising vote of the election for defense watchers, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton, was soundly defeated last night. Skelton, who has served in the House for 33 years, had been solidly ahead in most recent polls. Then the people voted and then he lost last night by more than 5 percent to Vicky Hartzler, who attracted Tea party support. Ooops.
One other senior Democratic lawmaker on the HASC lost. Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, chairman of the seapower committee, lost even though he was one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. Taylor lost to a Republican State Senator, Steven Palazzo, who we can count on to vigorously support shipbuilding given his district. Of course, he won't have the heft Taylor did as subcommittee chairman. These losses leave the Democrats in almost complete disarray in the HASC. Who will lead the party as ranking member will become a major parlor game for Hill watchers. Rep. Buck McKeon's selection as HASC chairman is very likely. Before the election there were no murmurs of dissatisfaction with his leadership.
Overall, I don't foresee a lot of change in how the HASC handles things military with the ascension of the GOP. McKeon issued a statement Wednesday morning outlining his priorities for the HASC. Top of the list was "focused and aggressive" oversight. In terms of money, he offered some spin that may not appeal greatly to some of the Tea Party types focused on slashing the federal deficit.
“Our citizens have spoken, and they want a defense budget that is sufficient to address the challenges of today and the threats of tomorrow," he said, adding that the administration's plan for one percent real growth in the base defense budget "is a net reduction for modernization efforts." On top of Gates' focus on the wars we are fighting today, McKeon speaks of "investing in the capabilities and force structure needed to protect the United States from tomorrow’s threats." Then, in what sounds like a nod to the Tea Party, he adds he will do this "while mandating fiscal responsibility, accountability, and transparency" from the Pentagon. That does not sound like the GOP-led HASC will have much time for the administration's likely budget when it comes out in February.
McKeon also sent a clear signal to Senate Democrats, saying he and his "are committed to passing a National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 that is not weighed down by the current majority’s social agenda items." Sen. Harry Reid will doubtless take note of this and ask Sen. Carl Levin to strip his bill of all offending language and pass it forthwith (sarcasm note for those who might think I'm serious).
In terms of some of the high-profile programs, the F136 engine still has strong support in the committee, as does the F-35. The Army's combat and tactical wheeled vehicle programs are unlikely to get much less oversight. And the Senate is still controlled by the Democrats, ensuring more continuity than the Tea Party folks will be happy with. One likely trend: more criticism of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his approach to defense policy. That's safe, since Gates will probably be gone soon after the GOP actually takes control of the House.
Before the election a senior Republican congressional aide told me they weren't measuring for the drapes yet. Time to take out the tape measures.