GOP faces internal battle over defense spending

Defense spending 053124 Photo GregNash

Republican lawmakers are facing an internal battle over defense spending as prominent Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, are pushing for big increases while conservatives are raising alarms over the debt.

The battle within the GOP over how much to increase defense spending to deter threats from Russia, China and Iran will burst into public next month when the Senate is set to debate the annual National Defense Authorization Act.

McConnell and Wicker are laying the groundwork for that debate by calling for major increases in defense spending above what the Biden administration and the Republican chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), have proposed for 2025.

They are squaring off against a small group of fiscal conservatives in both chambers who wield outsized leverage in the narrow House GOP majority and want to keep a strict cap on defense and nondefense spending levels.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) at the start of the 118th Congress called on Republicans “to give up the sacred cow that says we will never touch a dollar in military.”

On Thursday, he accused Wicker of wanting to “explode” the defense budget.

“Big spending Republicans want to explode military budget. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: both parties are to blame for $34T debt!” Paul wrote on the social media site X.

Paul joined Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) last year in introducing legislation to require the Department of Defense to pass an independent audit and mandate that any defense component that fails to complete a clean audit return 1 percent of its budget to the Treasury Department.

Other Senate conservatives are joining Paul’s call to clean up wasteful spending at the Pentagon.

“I think we need to spend more on defense. I also think we have to fix the underlying procurement process,” Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio), who led Senate Republican opposition to the recent $61 billion Ukraine aid package, told The Hill earlier this month.

“There is a lot that needs to be done here. While I do support an increase in defense spending, just throwing money at this problem is not going to make it go away,” he said.

Vance in a New York Times op-ed last month warned that America’s industrial base simply doesn’t have the capacity to match Russian forces in Ukraine.

“Our national security interests can be — and often are — separate from our economic interests. The notion that we should prolong a bloody and gruesome war because it’s been good for American business is grotesque,” he wrote.

The leverage of fiscal hawks in the House GOP conference is increased by Democrats who are refusing to boost defense spending without “parity” increases for nondefense programs.

Their power in the lower chamber was reflected in the top-line spending numbers Cole unveiled earlier this month. He proposed a 6 percent reduction for nondefense programs and a 1 percent increase for defense.

“I wish I could do better,” Cole told reporters after briefing his colleagues this month on the spending caps.

McConnell and Wicker say the House’s proposed defense spending target is not adequate to meet national security needs.

McConnell has repeatedly argued in recent months that the United States faces “linked” threats from Russia, China and Iran and the most dangerous international situation since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“To meet them seriously, we must invest seriously in our own defense,” he said Thursday during a visit to the Kentucky National Guard in Frankfort.

“The national security supplemental, which became law last month, was a lot harder to pass than it should have been,” he said, acknowledging the stiff resistance within his own party to providing $61 billion to Ukraine, which will be spent to upgrade U.S. military stockpiles.

McConnell warned that “decades of underinvestment in our own industrial capacity” has “undermined national security” and that “over the last four years our national defense has actually seen net loss in its budget.”

“Historic inflation and chronic under investment has strained procurement of vital munitions and equipment,” he said.

McConnell this week endorsed a proposal by Wicker, the ranking member of the Armed Services panel, to increase defense spending for 2025 by $55 billion and bring it from 2.9 percent to 5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) “over time.”

“@SenatorWicker is right. The demands of strategic competition require an urgent commitment to strengthening our military and defense industrial base. This is not the time to shackle defense spending to partisan domestic priorities. It’s time for a generational investment in American strength,” McConnell posted on X.

Wicker’s proposal, “21st Century Peace through Strength,” which he unveiled Wednesday, warns the nation’s defense industrial base is underfunded and unprepared for war with a major adversary.

His proposal calls for fielding a Guam defense system as soon as possible, revising air defense systems to counter drones, completing the $5.2 billion backlog of Defense Production Act projects, accelerating the military modernization of Taiwan and the Philippines, and blunting Chinese and Russian expansion into Africa and Central and South America.

Wicker, however, acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press that getting colleagues to agree to a major increase in defense spending would be “a hill to climb.”

But he warned it would be “foolish” for lawmakers to fail to take the threats posed by Russia, China and Iran seriously enough to prepare for war.

“I think that the fact that we’re in a new Cold War is evident,” he said.

Wicker unveiled his spending blueprint ahead of next month’s Senate debate over the defense authorization bill, but it’s not clear whether it will get the support of Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

Reed will likely hold back from endorsing a top-line defense spending number until Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.), House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, reach a deal with their GOP counterparts on the top-line defense and nondefense spending numbers.

Murray this month said she would insist on parity between defense and nondefense spending increases.

“When my Republican colleagues insist that despite the Fiscal Responsibility Act we need to boost spending in national security, I will also insist the boost to defense spending be matched with a similar increase to investments here at home,” Murray said.

McConnell rejected that demand out of hand, telling reporters: “I can’t accept that at all.”

Speaking to Kentucky National Guard officers on Thursday, McConnell argued that spending big now on a defense buildup would likely save the nation money over the longer term by deterring a military conflict with Russia, China or Iran.

“Funding preparedness is a lot cheaper than funding a war. It’s really important to remember for those critics who say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be spending here or spending there.’ In a conflict, you really are spending money,” he said.

“In World War II we were up to 37 percent of our GDP. Right now we’re spending about roughly 2 percent of our GDP [on defense]. That needs to come up if we’re going to be adequately prepared to avoid having way more spending, coupled with loss of life as well,” he warned.

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