Capitol Hill Republicans finally found something they can love about Donald Trump — an end to the freeze on defense spending.
Trump’s full-throated call to stop defense sequestration came as welcome news to both his supporters and skeptics in the GOP, where lawmakers are more accustomed to distancing themselves from Trump’s comments than cheering him on. In a major national security speech in Philadelphia Wednesday, the GOP presidential nominee — who is known for his more isolationist views — urged a bigger Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as improved missile defense.
“The way he articulated it, it’s only going to help him,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. (R-Calif.), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and has endorsed Trump.
The embrace of the GOP’s defense platform comes at a critical time for Trump, who has a 19-point lead among voters who are currently serving or have previously served in the U.S. military, according to a new NBC News/Survey Monkey poll. But Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is trying to close that gap, hitting her rival in a new ad called “Sacrifice” for his comments that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is not a war hero.
But Trump’s call for ending the defense sequester, which was set in motion by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and formally put in place in 2013, allows the GOP presidential nominee to find some welcome common ground with Hill Republicans, who are worrying about their own prospects in November should the top of the ticket become a drag.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who has refused to endorse Trump, welcomed the details in Trump’s national security speech.
“To the extent any candidate agrees with me, they’re right,” Thornberry said jokingly.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has often been at odds with his party’s nominee, but he supports spending more on defense along with the rest of the GOP leadership. Many Republicans have long wanted to lift the caps on defense without simultaneously raising the caps on domestic spending — a position that is a non-starter with Democrats and the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) responded to a reporter’s question on Wednesday that “yes” he trusts Trump to have his finger on the nuclear button. But he was noncommittal when asked how Republicans would actually bust the defense caps as Trump urged.
“We all, on our side of the aisle, almost everyone feels that defense is underfunded, and we’ll be dealing with that challenge and others as we decide how to allocate federal spending for next year,” McConnell said.
On other defense and national security issues, GOP lawmakers have recoiled from Trump’s suggestion that NATO is obsolete while he moves to embrace Russia. Some congressional Republicans have publicly repudiated his plans to ban Muslim immigrants and visitors, and questioned his casual proposals to use nuclear weapons and modernize the military on the cheap.
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), a member of the House Armed Services Committee who also serves as president of NATO’s parliamentary assembly, has endorsed Trump but also called the nominee’s past comments about NATO “naïve.”
On Wednesday, Turner congratulated Trump for “stepping to the plate” by outlining a national security strategy and calling for an end to sequestration, also expressing confidence that Trump “is coming around” on recognizing that NATO is important to the U.S.’s geostrategic interests.
Trump’s speech was heavy on numbers: He wants an active Army force 540,000 strong, a Marine Corps with 36 battalions, a Navy outfitted with 350 ships and submarines, an Air Force with 1,200 fighter aircraft, and a “state of the art missile defense system.” Trump will also demand from generals a plan to defeat the Islamic State within 30 days of taking office, he said.
To defense policy wonks, those figures are familiar – many come from the wish lists of military leaders, and many of Trump’s former rivals for the GOP nomination threw out similar numbers during their campaigns.
But top House Armed Services Committee Democrat Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said Trump might as well add “an army of unicorns” to his list of plans, stressing that Trump’s promises were too expensive to be realistic.
“He didn’t say anything about where he was going to find the money,” Smith said. “So I don’t know what the reality is.”
Trump said that he planned to ask Congress to “fully offset the costs of increased military spending” through “common-sense reforms that eliminate government waste and budget gimmicks.” He listed federal workforce attrition, trimming the military bureaucracy, and pulling funding from programs without active authorizations.
But Congress was unable to agree on those sorts of changes in the past. And congressional Republicans and Democrats are currently locking horns over how to pay for defense programs with a budget limited by sequestration cuts that have been in place since early 2013.
The GOP wants to use an extra $18 billion of war funds to get around those limits and pay for programs to modernize and expand the country’s nuclear and conventional defensive resources. But Democrats oppose increasing defense spending without a similar, simultaneous increase in domestic spending, to pay for things like education and child care benefits, scientific research, and infrastructure.
Neither side sees an easy resolution to the impasse.
“I don’t know what a solution would be,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the Defense Appropriations subommittee, who is also close to leadership. “I think it’s a mistake if the president thinks he can use the military to drag out more spending.”
Until lawmakers find a bipartisan solution, however, defense policy will be on hold. The issue of how to spend war funds is hanging like a dark cloud over ongoing negotiations between House and Senate leaders trying to hammer out a compromise on the annual defense policy bill. While the House’s bill includes $18 billion of extra war funding, the Senate’s version does not.
Earlier this week, Politico reported that the Pentagon circulated a memo this spring spelling out plans to “play hardball” against the House plans. The White House has since promised to veto both the House and Senate bills – an echo of last year, when President Obama threatened similar vetoes and ultimately did end up rejecting an initial compromise between the two chambers.
The chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees will meet again this week to continue their negotiations over “a whole bunch of issues,” Smith said.
Smith also suggested Wednesday that the only way out of the impasse might be if the Senate and House first resolved their differences over funding the government into the new fiscal year. The Senate is planning to move forward on a stopgap spending bill to keep the government open until Dec. 9, though it is unclear if a short-term measure can pass the House.
“Get the appropriations side resolved and then we follow,” Smith suggested as a path ahead. “But it’s going to be difficult, and take some time.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.