Everyone in the defense world will watch tomorrow night's State of the Union address for hints on the direction of the defense budget and just where the White House is positioning itself politically in terms of military cuts.
The Tea Party leaves (apologies for the pun) indicate that the House Budget Committee -- where the first major battles will be fought over cuts to the defense budget -- may well pass a topline budget figure for the Defense Department that is lower than the expected request from the White House. Expect Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to mobilize as many Republicans as he can to oppose a low budget ceiling.
But the stars may be aligning for change, though it's difficult to say for sure. Most of the industry and Hill watchers I've spoken with in the last few days believe that the Tea Party members are receiving the usual painful education in what Washington types like to call the realities of power, also known as what it costs to get reelected. However, one experienced Hill watcher said most tea party members are still going to go in fighting for budget cuts.
The Aerospace Industries Association is certainly working the halls. McKeon, Rep. Todd Akin and a host of other senior Republican and Democratic HASC members will be trying to ensure their colleagues agree with them that the defense budget must not be cut to any significant degree. But the House's new majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., has not ruled out defense programs from cuts.
There are nine freshman Republicans won slots on the House Budget Committee, and several of them are Tea Party die-hards.
Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is expected to fire the opening salvos in the battle for the budget late this week. Where they will be aimed, we don't know yet. But Ryan promised on Jan. 19 to seek "the largest series of spending cuts in the history of Congress."
Of course, Ryan may succeed in winning substantial cuts and fence in his House defense colleagues. But the Senate is unlikely to follow such a draconian path, unless the silence on defense cuts emanating from that body is much more ominous than most observers believe. At the same time, as our Hill watcher noted, the Senate did cut $8 billion from last year's defense budget. That speaks for itself.