Despite concurrent crises in Ukraine and Iraq, defense issues will hardly decide the November elections — but the outcome of those elections will prove decisive for defense. The top candidates for the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee both told me that they have their fingers crossed for a GOP takeover of the Senate as the best chance of sparing the military budget from sequestration cuts. It also helps, Mac Thornberry and Randy Forbes said, that their House GOP colleagues are returning to the party’s traditional appreciation of a strong defense in the face of rising threats. Though neither man was impolitic enough to say so aloud, an electoral drubbing for the Tea Party wing of the GOP would help a lot.
The crucial question of sequestration won’t be addressed until the new Congress takes shape, Thornberry said Friday afternoon, calling on the way home from a GOP event at the Newport News shipyard. “My guess is we’ll do a CR [continuing resolution] in September to get us beyond the election,” the HASC vice-chairman said, then vote the full appropriations for 2015 in the lame-duck session.
“The key for sequestration is not till fiscal year ’16, so that gives us next spring and summer to work on a new budget. Hopefully, we’ll have a budget for a change that actually passes the House and the Senate,” Thornberry continued. “A big part of our problem has been the Senate has just been a black hole into which everything falls.”
“If you want to change the direction we’re going, you have to change the Senate,” echoed Randy Forbes, who also called me after the Friday afternoon event at Newport News. “The Republicans in the House [already] passed a budget that got rid of sequestration for defense,” the HASC seapower subcommittee chairman said, but it went nowhere in the Democratic Senate (a foregone conclusion, since it made sharp cuts to domestic programs). If the GOP controls the Senate in 2015, a new House proposal will at least get a vote, Forbes said, “and if it comes up for a vote, it’s going to pass.”
Democrats haven’t been the only obstacle: So have deficit hawks in the House GOP, who at times overpowered the traditional defense hawks. Forbes sees the party shifting now as Russia and the Mideast both look more threatening. “They’re seeing where the world is [and getting] a reality check,” Forbes said. “You’re going to find fewer and fewer of those voices, and more voices saying we’re going to turn this thing [sequester] around.”
Thornberry agreed, albeit in less blunt terms. (The two men have roughly similar politics but very different styles). “I think that with what’s happening in the world that more people realize the importance of a strong defense than a few months or certainly a year ago,” Thornberry told me. “I can’t give you a road map on how we get from here to there for ’16 — it depends on the elections, of course — but I think there a growing understanding that we cannot allow those cuts to take effect.”
The elections in November aren’t the only ones that matter, however. There’s also the question of who succeeds retiring HASC chairman Buck McKeon in the new Congress. Thornberry, the leading contender, declined to discuss the issue: “It’ll be settled at the proper time, and in the meantime we all have work to do,” he said.
Forbes, by contrast, was effusive with praise both for his fellow dark-horse contenders, such as Joe Turner, and for front-runner Thornberry.
“The strength of where our committee has been the teamwork,” Forbes told me. “Regardless of what happens in Congress [after the elections], we’ll still have that team… whether the new chairman is Mac Thornberry or whether it’s me.”