Acceptance of Defense Cuts Signals Shift in G.O.P. Focus

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WASHINGTON -- With Congress unlikely to stop deep automatic spending cuts that will strike hard at the military, the fiscal stalemate is highlighting a significant shift in the Republican Party: lawmakers most keenly dedicated to shrinking the size of government are now more dominant than the bloc committed foremost to a robust national defense, particularly in the House.

That reality also underscores what Republicans, and some Democrats, say was a major miscalculation on the part of President Obama. He agreed to set up the automatic cuts 18 months ago because he believed the threat of sharp reductions in military spending would be enough to force Republicans to agree to a deficit reduction plan that included the tax increases he favored.

"Fiscal questions trump defense in a way they never would have after 9/11," said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma. "But the war in Iraq is over. Troops are coming home from Afghanistan, and we want to secure the cuts."

Representative Howard P. McKeon of California, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and one of the lawmakers Democrats had hoped would never accept the military cuts, went almost as far. "Republicans aren't cookie cutter," he said, "but we do agree on the basic premise of where we're trying to go. And if we don't get our fiscal house in order, it's very hard to provide for the defense of the nation."

As lawmakers prepared to return to Washington, the White House tried to raise the ante by highlighting the effects the cuts would have on programs in every state.

But at the heart of the battle over sequestration -- the nearly $1 trillion in budget cuts that are scheduled to begin on Friday and accelerate over the next decade -- are fundamental misunderstandings between the two parties over their respective priorities.

During the 2011 negotiations to raise the nation's statutory borrowing limit, Mr. Obama wanted an onerous "trigger" to force both sides to reach a compromise on deficit reduction. For Democrats, the bludgeon that would drive them to negotiate changes to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security would be cuts to domestic programs like child nutrition and national parks. For Republicans, the president wanted automatic tax increases to force a compromise on the broader tax code.

Republicans balked, but offered what Mr. Obama thought was a different Republican sacred cow -- military cuts.

Ultimately, taxes trumped all of that. Republicans, who last month let taxes rise on incomes over $400,000 to avert broader tax increases and the "fiscal cliff," are now ready to stand their ground, regardless of the military cuts.

"I really think they misunderstood what happened on the fiscal cliff," Mr. Cole said. "They thought they had Republicans on the run, when all they did was push us to high ground. All the muskets are pointing out. You want to charge the hill? Come on."

But the Republicans were surprised by Democrats, who would not shift the automatic domestic cuts to entitlement programs unless the people least affected by government support -- the rich -- also bore some of the burden.

"We always thought it wouldn't happen because the other side wouldn't stomach the nondefense reductions," said Representative Tom Price, a Georgia Republican and a leading voice among House conservatives. "I guess what happened was each side was too smart for the other."

Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said on Sunday that there was no miscalculation. In the final months of last year's presidential campaign, Republicans "racked up a lot of frequent flier miles booking flights to Virginia" to denounce the coming military cuts, he said. If Republican leaders would step out of the way, he said, rank-and-file Republicans most worried about the military cuts would step forward to compromise on taxes.

A sizable number of Republicans, including many senators, are incensed by the cuts about to fall on the Pentagon, totaling $43 billion for the 2013 fiscal year. Because the Defense Department will have only seven months to put them into effect and because military personnel are protected, military training, weapons acquisition and maintenance stand to be cut by 13 percent.

President Ronald Reagan's push in the 1980s for tax cuts and domestic spending restraint were accompanied by a huge military buildup. "There's no way the party of Ronald Reagan should be accepting these cuts," said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who has privately sought some compromise on tax loopholes.

Writing in the conservative Weekly Standard, William Kristol, a Republican hawk, excoriated Republicans for being "so desperate for a 'victory' over Obama" that they were "willing to sacrifice national defense for minor cuts in domestic spending which will in no way fundamentally change our trajectory toward national insolvency."

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, called the cuts "unconscionable" on the CNN program "State of the Union" on Sunday.

But most Congressional Republicans are standing their ground, a position they say is strategic. The federal government's growing debt cannot be controlled through the spending at the annual discretion of Congress, and after the cuts take effect, that part of the federal budget will drop to levels not seen in five decades as measured against the size of the economy. Long term, the problem is entitlements, especially Medicare and Social Security.

The pain of further cuts to discretionary programs could bring Mr. Obama to the negotiating table on them by the spring, if not by midsummer, when Congress must once again raise the government's borrowing limit.

"Because the Democratic-controlled Senate and the president refuse to negotiate, the only way to potentially bring them to the table to negotiate is to go forward with the spending reductions as they are," Mr. Price said.

With so many rank-and-file Republicans adamant that they would rather see the cuts stand than raise any taxes, Speaker John A. Boehner finds himself in a bind. Three times this year -- on the tax deal to resolve the fiscal cliff, on a measure to suspend the debt ceiling and on a package of Hurricane Sandy relief -- he has let legislation pass the House against the votes of a majority of Republicans. In 2011, Republicans accepted caps on military spending as well.

Each time, the speaker has promised to stand his ground on the next showdown with the president. That showdown comes this week.

Representative Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an Iraq War veteran with combat experience and a rising Republican star, said that the speaker was in a "very tough position" in one-on-one negotiations with the president, and that the opportunity for a grand bargain was gone.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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