Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks July 23 during a conference in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
As budget battles continue on Capitol Hill, senior Republican lawmakers are increasingly blaming their own party for aggressively cutting the federal budget at the expense of national defense, which they say should remain central to the party’s platform.
“We need to have a discussion among ourselves: Where the hell is the Republican Party going?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday at an event on Capitol Hill hosted by three of Washington’s conservative think tanks.
Graham criticized last summer’s Budget Control Act, which requires deep cuts to the DoD budget and non-defense discretionary spending programs if Congress is unable to come up with $1.2 trillion to reduce the deficit by January. The process by which the money would be cut is known as sequestration.
Graham did not vote for the law.
“The party I joined up to a long time ago considered the No. 1 obligation of the federal government as defending America,” he said. “And, in this deal, to try to bring about some fiscal sanity, we had as the penalty what I believe to be the most irresponsible approach to defense in modern times and our Republican fingerprints are on that.”
According to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Democratic ranking member on the House Budget Committee, Democrats offered Republicans a choice on sequestration: further defense cuts or closing tax loopholes. According to Van Hollen, Republicans chose defense as the sequestration threat instead of automatic tax increases.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., agreed with Graham about Republicans losing sight of defense in its zeal to scale back federal spending.
“We have lost our way to the extent that we think the green eyeshade-politics of deficit reduction is more important than national security,” Kyl said. “National security comes first.”
Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, had similar comments for the crowd who’d come to the “Defending Defense” event.
He reminded the audience of former President Reagan’s metaphor of a three-legged stool for the Republican Party’s platform: fiscal responsibility, social issues and national defense.
“Reagan would turn over in his grave if he saw what’s happened to the defense leg,” McKeon said.
The comments from Republican lawmakers come less than a week after 89 Republicans joined 158 Democrats in the House of Representatives to vote in favor of reducing the Pentagon’s budget by $1.1 billion for 2013. The vote was held during debate of the defense appropriations bill, which the House passed last week.
The decline in spending was brought about through an amendment co-sponsored by tea party Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of the House’s most liberal members.
The amendment froze the Pentagon’s base budget at 2012’s level of $518 billion, which is $1.1 billion lower than the House Appropriations Committee recommended for 2013.
“Austerity to me means spending less,” Mulvaney said during the House debate, adding that he would not be offering the amendment if he thought it put a single member of the military at risk.
To many observers, the bipartisan support for the legislation proved that reducing spending at the Pentagon is not a straightforward partisan issue. Instead, there appears to be support in both parties to cut the Pentagon’s budget to reduce the deficit.
However, even with the reduction, the House bill includes $1.8 billion more for DoD’s base budget than the Pentagon requested.
There is also growing evidence that the public would support a smaller budget for the Pentagon.
A large majority of Americans support cutting defense spending, according to a recent survey of 665 adults, which was conducted by the Program for Public Consultation, the Center for Public Integrity and the Stimson Center.
The survey found that 76 percent of those surveyed — 90 percent of those in Democratic congressional districts and 67 percent of those in Republican congressional districts — believe the defense budget should be cut, with those in Republican districts proposing an average 15 percent reduction and those in Democratic districts proposing an average 28 percent cut.