A growing number of Senate Republicans are saying that President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) should take defense spending cuts off the table in their negotiation over the debt ceiling.
The Republicans are digging in their heels after receiving a classified briefing on a Chinese spy balloon that floated over sensitive military installations.
“The entire civilized world should recognize that communist China is probably the greatest threat we’ve ever faced, more severe than Soviet Russia was because of its economic integration into the West,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) after receiving a briefing from senior administration officials on the spy balloon. “We should take every step we can to try to reduce our dependency on China [and] try to build stronger military deterrence against them.
“I do not think that we should be talking about cutting the defense budget at all right now. If anything, substantial defense increases,” he said.
Defense cuts weren’t popular with most Republicans even before the controversy surrounding the Chinese spy balloon, which was shot down off the coast of South Carolina a week ago Saturday.
But the balloon controversy, which some see as underlining an aggressive stance from Beijing, has become a No. 1 reason to draw a line against defense cuts.
“Having a strong robust national security is essential to deterring bad behavior,” said Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “I think it’s OK to try to find savings and do the audits and do all that sort of thing to become more efficient, but just willy-nilly saying we’re going to cut defense I think would be a mistake.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said “there is no way that we should be looking at defense cuts right now.”
“We’re probably going to need more and not less with regard to that. The primary responsibility of the Congress of the United States is the defense of our country and this one is a serious threat,” he said of China.
The tough GOP line on defense spending could make it even harder to reach a deal on spending cuts – which House and Senate Republicans are demanding as a price for raising the debt ceiling.
Democrats are against cuts to discretionary domestic spending and certainly do not want to reduce social spending if the Pentagon’s budget is not going to be touched.
President Biden has also drawn a line against cuts to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. McCarthy on Monday also pledged that cuts to Medicare and Social Security are off the table.
Senate Republicans had previously said they would leave the deficit reduction talks entirely to Biden and McCarthy, but it’s getting tough for them to stay out of it completely when there’s growing talk of the need for a new military buildup to counter China and Russia, which is beginning a new offensive in Ukraine.
“They believe in in strength,” Rounds said of China, noting that the Senate Armed Services Committee, on which he serves, has authorized the new B-21 stealth bomber. “We’re not going to be a pushover.”
He pointed out that a Chinese-owned company tried to set up a corn milling plant within 12 miles of Grand Forks Air Force base in neighboring North Dakota, which he called extremely suspicious.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another outspoken opponent of cutting defense funding, said he’s open to cutting wasteful programs within the Pentagon but he wants to redirect those savings to other defense-related priorities.
“I don’t mind reforming the Defense Department and doing away with certain programs. I want to apply it back into the Defense budget and put it in other areas. We need a bigger Navy,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody believes our Navy and our military footprint west of the international dateline is sufficient to deter China,” he said.
Republican lawmakers also say they’re not interested in cutting funding for veterans, law enforcement or border security, which doesn’t leave much on the table for Biden and McCarthy to discuss.
“Boy, I tell you they’re making their job very difficult,” said Bill Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center who previously served as the Republican staff director of the Senate Budget Committee.
“If you take entitlements like Medicare and Social Security off the table, you take defense off the table – obviously interest [payments] are off the table – what you’re left with is the safety-net programs [like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and non-defense discretionary,” he said. “They’re making their climb up this hill even more difficult.”
Hoagland said that non-defense discretionary spending accounts for less than 15 percent of all federal spending.
He said that means there’s little chance Biden and Republican leaders will agree to a deficit reduction package of any significant size.
Other policy experts share that view.
“Whatever gets done will be a trim at best,” said Jim Kessler, the executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
“One out of every ten federal employees is a law enforcement official,” he noted. “Who are we cutting from the border or from the FBI or TSA? I think this gets hard.
“Governing is a lot harder than being in the opposition. Kevin McCarthy is going to learn that,” he said.
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), a leading Senate Republican budget hawk, said his GOP colleagues need to broaden the parameters of the negotiations if they’re going to have any meaningful impact on the deficit.
He said lawmakers who want to take defense cuts off the table “are just not serious about trying to do anything about the debt.”
“All spending would have to be on the table in order to have any kind of real hope of assessing the debt,” he said.
“This came up with the omnibus at the end of the year and the question was: ‘Which is more important for our national security, adding $45 billion in military spending or having a $31 trillion debt?’ From the perspective of fiscal hawks like myself, the $31 trillion in debt is more of a danger to our national security,” Paul said.
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This story was originally published February 12, 2023, 6:00 AM.