McCarthy may have just torpedoed GOP hopes of boosting the defense budget

Last updated on June 6, 2023

Republican defense hawks thought they had found a back-door way to boost defense spending after the debt ceiling deal effectively flattened the Pentagon’s budget. The speaker has other plans.

Those hawks are seeking to pass a supplemental spending bill after the debt agreement between Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the White House capped defense funding at the administration’s request of $886 billion. But on Monday night, McCarthy told reporters that he won’t support spending above the caps in his larger quest to rein in federal funding.

“Why do you move to a supplemental when we just passed” the debt limit and spending agreement, McCarthy said. “If the idea of the supplemental is to go around the agreement we just came to, I think we’ve got to walk through appropriations.”

Yet that supplemental was the vehicle Senate hawks wanted to use to pad the Pentagon’s coffers, which they say doesn’t receive enough funding under Biden’s plan — an issue they argue could have dire implications for national security.

It’s unclear if the GOP leader will budge in the coming months, but if not, Republicans who had supported the debt limit deal despite the defense caps may have no avenue to alter it.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the lead advocate for a defense supplemental, doubled down Tuesday on arguments that the current cap on funding was not enough to outpace inflation or China, and that he would keep fighting.

“The speaker will never convince me that 2 percent below actual inflation is fully funding the Defense Department,” Graham said in a statement. “That cannot be the position of the Republican Party without some context here.”

“We’re playing a dangerous game with our national security,” he added. “The bill Speaker McCarthy produced is inadequate to the threats we face. If the Republican speaker takes the position that we’re going to be tough on China, I don’t see how we do that with a declining Navy.”

Defense hawks in the House who want to use a supplemental to pad the Pentagon will have a tough task getting past McCarthy, who’s under pressure from his right flank to gut spending. A push to hike only defense could also be complicated if Democrats seek more domestic funding in exchange for their likely needed votes.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he’d support a supplemental to ensure the Pentagon keeps pace with inflation, but feared it would tear open the debt deal.

“I do think the White House would insist on non-defense and then we’re back into spending … which is what we’re trying to fix,” Bacon said. “I knew there was a possibility we wouldn’t get a supplemental. So I still voted for it.”

Some House lawmakers hailed McCarthy’s comments.

“I will NOT vote for any money to be appropriated to fund a war in Ukraine & voted no all along,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), said in a tweet. “The U.S. should end the war and bring peace not fund death.”

And the support wasn’t only from Republicans.

“@SpeakerMcCarthy is right! There is plenty of waste and fraud at the Pentagon. He should put his money where his mouth is and bring our #AuditThePentagon bill to the floor,” Progressive Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis), said in a tweet.

The legislation to avert a default cleared last week after senators extracted a pledge from Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that the agreement won’t limit the Senate’s ability to appropriate emergency supplemental funds to respond to China, Russia and Iran — or non-defense needs.

That could come in the form of a bill to provide more assistance to Ukraine, which could run out over the next few months.

But those plans to force an end-run around the defense caps come as McCarthy stares down thus-far unsubstantiated threats from hard-right members to oust him from the speakership over federal spending. It marks a major tilt politically in favor of fiscal conservatives, as it’s been years since a Republican speaker has come out publicly against a defense spending increase.

“He just went through 15 rounds to be elected speaker. To get the pushback he got … on the debt ceiling program, the speaker still has got to be cognizant of the divisions within the conference,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a senior appropriator.

“But only the speaker can explain to you how serious he is about stopping some kind of a supplemental,” he added. “There’s a number of people in the conference that support funding Ukraine and continue to support funding Ukraine. And so we’ll see how that inside conflict continues to [play out].”

The debt deal quashed plans by the House Armed Services Committee to endorse a bipartisan hike to Biden’s Pentagon funding plans for a third year in a row. The panel plans to endorse the budget cap in the debt deal as it considers its annual Pentagon policy bill this month.

“I think the speaker wants to stand by what the deal is,” said Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.). “I think, at least in my mind, we’re going to be relegated to the dollars that we have before us in the debt ceiling deal. And then we’ll see what happens from there.”

Wittman was pessimistic on lawmakers’ ability to pad the defense budget with a supplemental, noting that emergency funds have typically been linked to emerging threats, however loosely.

“To me, that’s the base reason that you’d have to use going forward is to say, ‘Hey, here’s something that’s completely unexpected,’” Wittman said. “And since all this deliberation just took place, I’m not sure there’s anything you could jump out and say, ‘Oh, gosh, we didn’t didn’t expect this.’”

On Monday, the speaker stressed the need to find “efficiency and savings” in the Defense Department, citing its inability to pass an audit and the slow pace of acquisitions. “There’s a lot of places for reform where we can have a lot of savings,” he said.

He defended the deal’s defense level as a “sweet spot” that reflects a 3 percent increase over this year’s national defense budget when, McCarthy noted, some House Republicans wanted deeper cuts.

“We’ve just plussed up the amount we’re spending on defense. So let’s make [sure] every dollar’s spent wisely,” he said.

The political dynamics could change, however, with defense hawks pointing to the continued need to arm Ukraine and position the military to deter China in the Pacific.

“Geopolitics is fluid. Threats change. They increase. They decrease,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.).

“It sucks. We’ve got divided government. Nobody gets 100 percent of what they want,” Gallagher added of the pact. “The deal’s less than a week old. So I think all this talk of supplementals and this and that is premature and wild speculation.”