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Hawks worry about defense caps in debt limit deal

The potential for limits on defense spending put hawks in a tough spot in deciding whether to support the proposed debt ceiling deal.

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has come out in support of the debt limit deal.
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has come out in support of the debt limit deal. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A debt limit compromise that would cap defense spending for the next two years is aggravating congressional defense hawks who want the Pentagon to get a significant funding boost. 

Many Republicans in particular have spent months arguing that the Biden administration’s proposed $842 billion for the Defense Department in fiscal 2024 shortchanges the Pentagon at a time of widespread concern about China’s military ambitions.

Now, they’re being asked to vote for a bill that would stave off a catastrophic debt limit breach but lock in the defense spending level that Biden proposed.  

“We’re accepting Biden’s defense budget, which is actually a cut,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., in a Fox News interview, suggesting that the 3 percent increase in the deal would amount to a cut in practice given inflation rates. Waltz, chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, vowed to vote against the bill. 

“That’s cutting submarines,” he added. “That’s cutting ships while you have a massive military buildup from China. We can’t do this on the backs of our troops.” 

The 99-page debt limit compromise bill, which was released Sunday night, would limit overall national security spending in fiscal 2024 to $886 billion. That would be a roughly 3 percent increase from current levels, aligning with President Joe Biden’s request for defense spending overall (which includes both the Defense Department and a smaller allocation for nuclear-related spending at the Energy Department and other security programs). 

In fiscal 2025, defense spending would be capped at $895 billion, just a 1 percent increase from the previous year. 

That level is likely “manageable” for the department, Byron Callan, a defense analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, wrote in a Tuesday message to investors, though he noted “underlying cost growth pressures” stemming from inflation and — possibly — “some defense program performance.” 

Still, those cuts will be hard to swallow for lawmakers who think significant spending increases are needed to deter Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region, especially with some military experts warning that China could try to annex Taiwan by force as early as 2027.

“The Biden defense budget takes the Navy from 298 ships to 291, at a time when China is going to increase their navy by almost a third,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., during an interview with Fox News. “I look forward to the details, but if you send me the Biden defense budget to the United States Senate and declare it fully funds the military, you will have a hard time with me.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has “strong feelings” about the measure, his spokesperson said Tuesday, but did not elaborate further. Wicker has pushed for a defense budget equaling five percent of the nation’s GDP. 

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement Tuesday in support of the bill that the caps would provide an opportunity to streamline the defense budget. 

“I believe we can meet those goals by cutting funding for misguided Defense Department priorities that aren’t related to national security, optimizing the workforce, and creating incentives for disruption to create competition and lower costs,” he said. 

Defense-minded Democrats, meanwhile, are generally more supportive of the compromise agreement. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in an interview Tuesday that he backed Biden’s Pentagon spending proposal and would likely vote for the debt limit compromise. 

The two-year spending plan will provide critical stability for the military, he said. Defense and industry officials have repeatedly urged Congress to pass appropriations bills on time and avoid continuing resolutions.

“Being able to plan, being able to know that you’re going to have money and how much money you’re going to have is like 90% of the battle here,” he said. “It’s a good budget deal. It gives us predictability for two years, which is incredibly important for the Department of Defense.”

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement he will be voting for the bill despite his concerns about defense investments. 

“Despite their age-old chicken hawk bluster, Kevin McCarthy and the Republicans have succeeded in cutting the defense budget once you factor in inflation,” he said in a statement. “The real question is whether we will use this opportunity to make the politically difficult cuts we need to modernize our military or if we will continue playing parochial politics with our defense dollars.” 

The deal’s impacts

The $886 billion cap for defense spending in fiscal 2024 will change the trajectory of the annual defense authorization bill, which the House’s defense panels are aiming to mark up in June, though an official schedule hasn’t yet been released.

If it goes through, the debt ceiling bill will force some tough decisions upon lawmakers of both parties who have in recent years signed off on hefty increases to the Pentagon’s budget. 

Todd Harrison, Metrea Strategic Insights managing director, wrote in an email that the overarching deal will “set a different tone” for negotiations this year — essentially creating “a zero-sum game in terms of adds and cuts” as lawmakers mark to a “fixed budget target.” 

If defense hawks want to expand procurement, they’ll likely need to accept reductions in operations and maintenance or research and development, said Travis Sharp, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank and officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. 

“With the agreement in place, Congress will be more limited in its ability to add funding for procurement,” he said. “If Congress wanted to trim R&D spending to free up funds for procurement, they would have to act slightly differently than they’ve been acting over the last 10 years.”

Supplemental spending bills could emerge as an avenue to spend money on defense outside of the budget caps, Sharp said, particularly when it comes to Ukraine aid. Since supplemental packages don’t count towards the total defense spending limit, savvy lawmakers could try to include defense spending priorities with connections to Ukraine in those bills. 

With current Ukraine aid on pace to run out before the fall, the Defense Department is expected to seek additional military funds for Kyiv in the coming months. 

“Another option for Congress would be to use supplemental funding as the vehicle for making increases to procurement or other areas where they want to see more funds,” Sharp said, though he cautioned that including any programs not directly related to Ukraine would likely rankle fiscal conservatives. 

The debt limit legislation is expected to get a House vote Wednesday, setting it up for consideration in the Senate before the default deadline of June 5.

Briana Reilly contributed to this report.

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