President Donald Trump is about to blow up the uneasy détente between GOP defense and fiscal hawks.
The Pentagon is set to seek tens of billions of dollars from Congress to implement Trump’s vow to rebuild the military — “to load it up” with “beautiful new equipment,” as he said at the U.S. Central Command in Florida last week. And Republicans are already drawing battle lines over whether the extra defense dollars should be added to the deficit or, as many in the party have long insisted, be matched with equal cuts elsewhere.
It’s a fight that will test Trump’s skills as a dealmaker and have long-term implications for the GOP, according to interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers.
It also will make for some unlikely alliances: Leading the charge for the defense hawks are Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — two of Trump’s top GOP critics on other issues but who will be major allies in the new president’s quest to make good on his campaign pledge.
“I’m willing to do it without it being paid for,” Graham said of a defense spending surge. “I think this is an emergency.”
On the other side are fiscal hard-liners like Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, and even some more moderate Republicans like Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who worry the GOP will abandon its mission of reining in red ink now that the Obama administration is in the rearview mirror.
“I think with any new spending, we ought to figure out ways of offsetting it or paying for it,” Corker said. “I hope we’re not going to a place where all of the sudden, because we’re in office, we don’t think the deficit matters anymore, but I’m seeing some early signs there may be some who feel that.”
Any discussion of the top national security threats facing the country should start with the national debt, Corker, Paul and Cruz said separately.
“Any time we spend more money — even if it’s for something that we need — we need to cut spending in a corresponding aspect to the budget,” Paul said. “I have always said it’s a mistake to increase spending without offsetting it somewhere else.”
The feud even threatens to divide the Trump administration itself, with Trump’s pick for budget chief, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, almost certain to collide with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who announced in a recent memo that he will seek a big budget boost for the Pentagon for the current fiscal year.
Mulvaney is a leading deficit hawk who has sought repeatedly to slash the military’s war budget — one of several reasons McCain says he is leaning against voting for the South Carolina Republican to be director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“You’ve spent your entire congressional career pitting the debt against our military, and each time, at least for you, our military was less important,” McCain lectured Mulvaney at his confirmation hearing.
The mechanics of Trump’s defense budget boost are still unclear, including whether it will be wrapped into a larger supplemental spending request that includes money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
One option is to add the new defense money to the Pentagon’s war budget, called Overseas Contingency Operations, which isn’t constrained by stiff budget caps established in 2011. Doing so would open up Republicans to charges of budget gimmickry, but it would allow them to avoid tough talks with Democrats, who would almost certainly demand more money for domestic federal agencies in any tinkering with the caps.
“It’s a high likelihood that they put it in OCO so that they won’t have to renegotiate the budget deal, which opens a can of worms,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Harrison expects the Pentagon will seek about $15 billion to $20 billion in additional defense spending for this year, while other experts predict something closer to $30 billion or $40 billion. Defense officials say they’re still waiting on OMB to give guidance on the size of the request.
Trump has issued a directive calling for a larger defense budget, and Mattis followed up with a memo saying the Pentagon was preparing a supplemental to be sent to OMB by March 1, but that date could slip — especially if Mulvaney’s confirmation is delayed further by Democratic opposition to Trump’s Cabinet appointments.
Whatever the Pentagon proposes will force Republicans to choose between defense and debt reduction — a choice that is sure to end up alienating one wing of the GOP or the other.
“The budget battles ahead will be firstly with [Trump’s] own party as it is deeply divided over which priority is more important: to reduce the debt or grow the military,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “And when entitlements are going to be largely untouched, as the president said himself on the campaign trail, Congress cannot do both.”
Whether and how Trump gets Congress to approve additional defense spending will help reveal the new president’s negotiating prowess and what compromises he’s willing to swallow to accomplish his larger goals.
On top of massaging the GOP’s internal divisions, Trump also will have to win over some Democratic support, in order to reach a likely 60-vote threshold in the Senate. This will be no easy task, given that Democrats have long fought to ensure that any new dollar for the Pentagon come with an extra dollar for nondefense agencies — from the State Department, to the Education Department, to national parks and environmental grants.
“We are very concerned about the overall budget discipline and that there is fairness in budget considerations of all needs,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said.
Katherine Blakeley, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said Republicans are likely to try to attach a defense supplemental to the broader fiscal 2017 appropriations bill, which needs to be passed by April 28 to avoid a federal government shutdown. That move would put maximum pressure on reluctant lawmakers in both parties to support additional funding for the military.
“The more leverage you can put on any one pivot point,” she said, “the greater the likelihood it will come through by hook or by crook.”