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House Sidling Up to Major Defense Cuts; Lawmakers Look for a Leader

Posted by Colin Clark on

Washington: They aren’t there yet, but if one peers deep into the voting tendencies of the House Republican Caucus, there are clear indications they are growing more comfortable with the idea of making significant cuts to the Defense Department budget.

“The rising tide against defense spending is particularly noticeable among Republicans. A tally by Darcy Scott Martin of True Majority shows that 69 Republicans (29% of the House GOP) voted for either the Frank (D-Mass.) or the Mulvaney (R-SC) amendments to trim the increase in the Defense Appropriations Bill. Those 69 Republicans provide a good target list for future votes,” veteran defense and Capitol Hill watcher, John Isaacs of the Livable World Foundation, says in a memo analyzing Hill actions on defense.

But major moves to cut defense spending are still unlikely to come from the House because a large proportion of House Democrats support strong defense spending. “But just as it was encouraging to see so many Republicans voting for these amendments, an identical portion of Democrats voted against the Frank amendment – 54 Democrats, or 29% of those voting:”

As Isaacs sees it,. there is only one path that might lead to major cuts right now: if they were “to be mandated in debt ceiling/budget negotiations. If the White House and leadership pressure for reduced Pentagon budgets, it will be hard for Congress to add additional money.”

While few details have leaked out about the debt discussions between the Hill and the White House there have been no hints that defense cuts are likely to be a major component. In his Twitter town hall last week, the president seemed to be at pains to rule out major cuts.

“We can’t simply lop off 25 percent off the defense budget overnight,” President Obama said July 7. “We have to think about all the obligations we have to our troops who are in the field, and making sure they’re properly equipped and safe.” Even the controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan must be done “fairly gradually,” he said.

One of his thinktank colleagues, Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information, believes those who support defense cuts in both parties are “looking for leadership” from a colleagues, which they have not yet found.

“What they lack the most is a leader that a majority of both the Republican and Democratic caucuses feel comfortable with and they they know they must take very seriously. There is no telling where that leadership might come from; do not exclude its coming from the executive branch, but thus far it is not coming from there, and it has not really emerged in the House either,” Wheeler writes.

While Wheeler and Isaacs don’t say it in their analyzes, Rep. Barney Frank’s liberal credentials leave many of those who might follow his lead on defense cuts just too uncomfortable for them to vote with him. And Rep. Ron Paul leaves many of his GOP colleagues shaking their heads as he works with Frank to try and cut defense spending.

Wheeler, one of the toughest defense budget critics in town, looks at the Hill and is most unimpressed with its attempts to make cuts so far.

“Congress pats itself on its own back for pretending to support frugality in the Pentagon by taking easy votes such as against the second engine for the F-35 (which SecDef Gates successfully painted as a pork program) and against a piece of the DOD funding for military bands,” he writes in an email. At the same time, he believes the votes on the Frank-Paul and related amendments to cut from $8.5 to $17 billion from the 2012 budget, “shows a new high-water mark for budget cutting in the Pentagon not seen in Congress since — by my recollection — in the mid-1980s when the so-called Military Reform Caucus and budget cutters like Chuck Grassley were fully active.”

On the policy side of the spending bill, Wheeler takes Congress to task for waffling on Libya. “It has been the hallmark of Congress for longer than I can recall to permit presidents to do as they please internationally while sniping from the sidelines and avoiding taking responsibility,” he writes. “We should expect Congress to continue to send ambivalent messages about Libya. Those messages, while incoherent, are an important — and discouraging — signpost to the interventionists in the White House and Congress, who reside in all sectors of the political spectrum.”

Does that mean the Tea Party, sometimes pushing for some defense cuts and sometimes arguing against funding for overseas bases, is an isolationist force on the Hill? Not in Isaacs eyes. “The Tea Party tends to be non-interventionist and not isolationist,” he told me today.

What do you think?