WASHINGTON – Back home, tea partiers clamoring for the debt-ridden government to slash spending say nothing should be off limits. Tea party-backed lawmakers echo that argument, and they're not exempting the military's multibillion-dollar budget in a time of war.
That demand is creating hard choices for the newest members of Congress, especially Republicans who owe their elections and solid House majority to the influential grass-roots movement. Cutting defense and canceling weapons could mean deep spending reductions and high marks from tea partiers as the nation wrestles with a $1.3 trillion deficit. Yet it also could jeopardize thousands of jobs when unemployment is running high.
Proponents of the cuts could face criticism that they're trying to weaken national security in a post-Sept. 11 world.
House Republican leaders specifically exempted defense, homeland security and veterans' programs from spending cuts in their party's "Pledge to America" campaign manifesto last fall. But the House's new majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., has said defense programs could join others on the cutting board.
The defense budget is about $700 billion annually. Few in Congress have been willing to make cuts as U.S. troops fight in Afghanistan and finish the operation in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a recent pre-emptive move, proposed $78 billion in spending cuts and an additional $100 billion in cost-saving moves. While that amounts to $13 billion less than the Pentagon wanted to spend in the coming year, it still stands as 3 percent growth after inflation is taken into account.
That's why tea party groups say if the government is going to cut spending, the military's budget needs to be part of the mix.
"The widely held sentiment among Tea Party Patriot members is that every item in the budget, including military spending and foreign aid, must be on the table," said Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. "It is time to get serious about preserving the country for our posterity. The mentality that certain programs are 'off the table' must be taken off the table."
Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, leaders of the group FreedomWorks, recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial that "defense spending should not be exempt from scrutiny." On Gates' proposed savings of $145 billion over five years, they said, "That's a start."
Just about all Republicans — and plenty of Democrats, too — favor paring back spending. But when it comes to specific cuts — eliminating money for schools, parks, hospitals, highways and everything else — the decisions get difficult. Every government expenditure has its advocate and no one wants his or her program cut.
Fault lines have emerged within the Republican ranks over how deep to cut and where to whittle. In the coming weeks, lawmakers will feel the pressure from constituents and colleagues.
"Everything is ultimately on the table," said Rep. Jon Runyan of New Jersey, a freshman Republican and a tea party favorite.
That view could produce a rough tenure for the 6-foot-7 former football player, who just earned a coveted spot on the House Armed Services Committee, a fierce protector of military interests. The congressman's district is home to Fort Dix, which merged with neighboring McGuire Air Force Base and Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station to make the military's first three-branch base.
Runyan expects a committee fight over Gates' proposal to cancel a $14 billion program to develop the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle for the Marines and use that money to buy additional ships, F-18 jets and new electronic jammers. Already, several members of the panel, including the chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., have signaled they will challenge Gates' move.
Runyan says he will decide after he's heard arguments from both sides.
No matter how much defense spending is trimmed, none of the cuts is likely to reduce the money that's available to the military to spend on the war fronts.
"We want to make sure men and women put in harm's way have the resources they need," said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who recently traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan with several of his GOP colleagues, including a number of other freshmen. "That doesn't mean the entire defense budget has to be taken off the table," he added.
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said he didn't think "anything ought to be off-limits for the effort to reduce spending." He told "Fox News Sunday" that "I don't think we ought to start out with the notion that a whole lot of areas in the budget are exempt from reducing spending, which is what we really need to do and do it quickly."
Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, has proposed cutting total government spending by $153 billion, including deep reductions in defense and elimination of several weapons programs. Brady called it a "down payment" on getting the country's finances in order.
In an unusual political pairing, liberal Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a libertarian and former Republican presidential candidate, have joined forces in pushing for substantial reductions in the defense budget, including closing some of the 600-plus military bases overseas.
"I'll work with anybody," Frank said of the effort, which could attract other liberal Democrats who have tried for years to reduce post-Cold War military spending and tea party-backed Republicans.
The schism within the GOP is philosophical as well as generational. Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, 48, a tea party favorite, says all spending should come under scrutiny, from food stamps to foreign aid to money for wars. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., 74, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, worries about the rise of protectionism and isolationism in the Republican Party.
For all the talk, one tea party group is willing to give lawmakers some leeway, provided that they adhere to the movement's values.
Sal Russo, chief strategist of the Tea Party Express, said the defense budget should be part of the calculation and his organization expects lawmakers to "responsibly bring spending down." He added that his group will give them "flexibility to do their job."
Tea party-backed Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said lawmakers "at the end of the day, will take a look at all the fat in the budget." But he said it was premature with two wars to say how Congress will make the cuts. Scott has two brothers in the military — one in the Air Force, the other in the Army.
Pledge to America: http://pledge.gop.gov
Tea Party Patriots: http://www.teapartypatriots.org
Tea Party Express: http://www.teapartyexpress.org