Biggest Threat to Pentagon Budget: Congressional Republicans?

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during his final news conference of his first term in the White House's East Room on Monday. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The U.S. Defense Department and America’s weapon manufacturers long have been able to count on one group in Washington for support — and to keep the funding faucet wide open during the Post-9/11 era: Congressional Republicans — particularly, House Republicans. But that could be changing. The commander in chief said as much during his final first-term press conference.

Some congressional Republicans have said they will only support a debt-ceiling increase that includes an amount of federal spending cuts equal to the size of the borrowing-limit hike. President Barack Obama said if Republicans in both chambers insist on such a deal for raising the debt ceiling, big Pentagon spending cuts would be inevitable.

That’s because, as this analysis by two prominent Republican economists notes, Republicans want as much as $4.7 trillion in deficit reduction. Obama contention is this: You can’t get to $4.7 trillion without dipping into the military’s annual budget, which approaches $530 billion annually.

“We’ve heard from some Republicans in both the House and the Senate is that they will only increase the debt ceiling by the amount of spending cuts that they’re able to push through and — in order to replace the automatic spending cuts of the sequester — that’s $1.2 trillion,” Obama told reporters. “Say it takes another trillion or trillion-two to get us through one more year, they’d have to identify $2.5 trillion in cuts just to get the debt ceiling extended to next year — $2.5 trillion.

“They can’t even — Congress has not been able to identify $1.2 trillion in cuts that they’re happy with,” Obama said, echoing something I pointed out in this essay last week. “These same Republicans say they don’t want to cut defense; they’ve claimed that they don’t want to gut Medicare or harm the vulnerable.”

Then came the money quote from POTUS, one that likely has some defense executives and lower-level employees a bit nervous today: “But the truth of the matter is that you can’t meet their own criteria without drastically cutting Medicare, or having an impact on Medicaid, or affecting our defense spending. So the math just doesn’t add up.”

The problem for the Defense Department is this: Its annual budget target is massive at a time when its traditional ally — the Republican Party — has shifted its priorities from national security and taxes to deficit reduction and shrinking the federal government.

Obama offered a different course. He contends there is “consensus” that $4 billion in overall deficit-reduction measures is needed to “stabilize our debt and deficit,” and that $2.5 trillion already has been enacted. That means “we need about $1.5 trillion more,” POTUS said, adding: “The package that I offered to [House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio] before … the New Year would achieve that. We were actually fairly close in terms of arriving at that number.”

But Boehner walked away from those late-December fiscal cliff negotiations, largely because the emerging deal with Obama feature too few spending cuts for his House GOP caucus. Lower-chamber Republicans are practically salivating for budget targets, and eager to force Obama into accepting massive federal spending reductions so they can declare victory. Can a $530 billion slice of the federal spending pie they so desperately want to shrink survive?

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett