Republican Party Split Between Deficit Hawks and Defense Hawks

Republicans must pick between painful cuts or accept additional revenues.

Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole says it's better to cut deep than not at all, but California Rep. Buck McKeon wants to spare defense spending.
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The Republican Party is fractured in a lot of ways, but it's hard to believe the party of Ronald Reagan would be split over whether the country's Department of Defense should face roughly $500 billion in automatic budget cuts over the next ten years.

"Sequestration is going to happen," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon said during a breakfast with reporters Friday. "Both sides are locked in positions that we cannot seem to get away from. I think we are going to be forced into it."

McKeon explained the GOP is straddling an impossible line as the party of both fiscal conservatives and defense hawks is beginning to have to prioritize one above the other.

McKeon says his party is still reeling from a paradigm shift after the 2010 election. In 2011, 87 freshman Republicans came to Washington with one unwavering belief—that the country's number one enemy was its ballooning debt.

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"I know some of them are very wrong just as they know that I am very wrong," McKeon said. "It's not all the freshman, we had other people who had been here a long time that have a feeling that the biggest problem we face is our deficit and our spending, and if we don't get that under control, nothing else matters."

The Pentagon cuts are part of $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts that will take affect March 1 unless Congress can come to an agreement on how to replace them. And while an 11th hour deal was struck in January to push the cuts down the road by a few months, many Republicans in the House of Representatives are now digging in their heels, saying if it comes down to raising more taxes or getting the budget cuts they have long advocated for, they choose cuts.

"We would rather see those cuts happen [than none at all, but] it is not the package of cuts we would have preferred," Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole said in an interview with U.S. News last week, pointing to how Republicans in the House passed two separate packages of cuts to replace the sequester. "I can assure you that there will not be a political blink on this. These cuts will occur."

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If defense sequestration goes into effect, the Pentagon will have to shave $46 billion over the next seven months from its budget, leading to delayed maintenance on ships and aircraft, furloughs, and civilian hiring freezes.

"This action will seriously harm our ability to do important work, which will, in turn, harm national security: civilians fix our ships and tanks and planes, staff our hospitals, handle contracting and financial management, and much more," Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said Tuesday during a hearing on Capitol Hill.

And aside from the security and human costs of budget cuts, there is a political liability for some in the GOP whose constituents will be directly hit.

"We are better than this as Americans. This is not a wise fiscal path, this is not a wise path with respect to defending our country," says Virginia Republican Rep. Scott Rigell, who has Norfolk Naval Base in his backyard. "There are those who sit beside me who say that defense spending has to come down and my response to that is even if you hold the view that defense spending must come down, this is not the way to handle this."

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Rigell says, however, that the fault doesn't lie with his party, but in the Senate where Majority Leader Harry Reid won't bring up House-approved packages to replace the sequester on the Senate floor.

The Republican divergence between accepting a deal they don't like to protect the military or letting the cuts take effect, could have political implications.

Some Republicans see the issue as a winning one for them. If sequestration happens and the cuts cause the economy to tank, they can point fingers at Democrats. But others for whom politics is local, there is a risk.

If sequestration was to go into effect, some strategists see an opportunity for Democrats to take back some congressional seats and tie GOP candidates to their Republican colleagues who let it happen.