House Republicans have chosen Rep. William McClellan “Mac” Thornberry, R-Texas, to chair the House Armed Services Committee, which is facing critical decisions on funding, weapons and pay for the military.
Thornberry, a lawyer and cattle rancher from the Texas panhandle, acknowledged the challenge in accepting the nod from the House Steering Committee Tuesday but gave away little on how he would handle specific issues.
“Our country faces a wide array of serious national security from the renewed aggression of major powers to terrorism and attacks in cyberspace,” Thornberry said.
“Congress has an indispensable role to play in meeting those challenges, and the committee will work to see that our country remains strong,” said Thornberry, the current HASC vice chairman.
However, Thornberry recently complained that President Obama lacked an overall strategy to deal with a mounting array of threats worldwide.
“Because so much attention has been given to Ukraine and ISIS, a number of other world hot spots have not been in the headlines but are heating up,” Thornberry said. “From North Korea and China to Yemen, Afghanistan, and West Africa, dangers are growing. And yet the Administration shows little leadership in strengthening our defenses.”
In recent interviews, Thornberry has been especially critical of the Obama administration’s efforts to deal with the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“The first thing we should do is quit talking about what we’re not going to do,” Thornberry told CNN. “We have to re-assure the Iraqis and others that we’re in it for the long haul. These tactical airstrikes don’t really change the momentum.”
The 56-year-old Thornberry, who has a 95 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, will replace the 76-year-old Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-California, the outgoing HASC chairman, who is retiring.
“During my four years as chairman, I’ve come to rely on Mac as a policy expert, a gifted communicator, a trusted confidant, and a friend,” McKeon said of his successor.
Thornberry is said to have a good working relationship with Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, the ranking HASC Democrat, but Smith has repeatedly stressed the mismatch between the demands put on the military and the resources provided under sequestration.
“We’ve been running on fumes for a while,” Smith said at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California last weekend. Smith also said that the American people had sent Congress a discordant message in the recent elections: “They want the budget balanced, nothing cut and no new taxes.”
Thornberry and Congress were given notice Wednesday by Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, that sequester might force him to reduce the Army’s troop strength to 420,000.
Odierno said at the Defense One Summit 2014 that the Army could execute with 450,000 troops but “we don’t know if the requirements will increase” to counter ISIS and growing Russian aggression. “You’ll be hearing me say those words” in coming hearings with HASC and the Senate Armed Services Committee, Odierno said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work recently ripped Congress for blocking DoD attempts to scrap aging weapons systems and overhaul pay and compensation to boost readiness.
“No, you can’t get rid of the A-10. No, you can’t get rid of the U-2. No, you can’t get rid of those (Navy) cruisers. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. And then, no, you can’t do the compensation reform,” Work said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum.
Since coming to Congress in 1995 with the Republican wave that made Newt Gingrich House Speaker, Thornberry has shown himself to be “a relatively moderate conservative Republican particularly interested in acquisitions -- the way we buy things and how we pay for them,” said Gordon Adams, a defense budget analyst.
“I don’t expect quite as much tub thumping” from Thornberry against the Obama administration as was the case with McKeon, said Adams, who worked at the Office of Management and Budget under former President Bill Clinton.
Adams said he also expected Thornberry’s cordial relationship with ranking Democrat Smith to continue. “They’re both smart, reasonable guys,” Adams said.