In listening sessions with their rank and file, House Republican leaders said they have found a surprising willingness to consider defense cuts that would have been unthinkable five years ago, when they last controlled the House. While the sessions have sparked heated debate on many issues, Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), the deputy GOP whip, said there are few lawmakers left who view the Pentagon budget as sacrosanct.
“When we say everything is on the table, that’s what we mean,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the No. 3 leader who has been hosting the listening sessions in his Capitol offices.
Freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) could serve as a poster boy for the new breed of conservatives who are eager to wipe out government waste and inefficiency, no matter where they find it. Kinzinger, an active-duty Air National Guardsman who flew missions in Iraq, fought successfully last month to cut a request for $100 million to buy new flight suits for Air Force pilots. The old ones, he argued, are good enough.
Defense spending is “a pillar of Republican strength. It’s a pillar of national strength. Look, I know there are sacred cows,” Kinzinger said in an interview. “But we cannot afford them anymore.”
With the clock ticking toward an Aug. 2 deadline to raise the legal limit on federal borrowing, defense spending has been a major stumbling block in negotiations between the two parties. While both sides view the tax issue as the biggest hurdle, negotiators spent much of their final three-hour session arguing over agency spending before Republicans declared an impasse last Thursday, according to people familiar with the talks.
The White House has offered nearly $1 trillion in cuts to domestic agencies over the next decade and $300 billion more from security agencies. But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) pressed for as much as $1.7 trillion in cuts. And he wanted an overall cap on spending that would leave the door open to slashing the entire sum from domestic programs — such as education, food safety, health research and criminal justice — when lawmakers draft spending bills next spring.
“Everything is on the table,” Cantor said in an interview afterward. But the decision on how much to cut defense “belongs in the appropriations process.”
White House budget director Jack Lew objected, and the meeting grew heated. Democrats said they could never support a package that targets only social programs and extracts no pain from the military, big business or the wealthy.