House Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with the deep cuts scheduled for the Pentagon’s budget under the sequester. Behind the scenes, several prominent members have complained to the leadership, and many rank-and-file members who represent defense-industry workers are nervous.
But for now, most of the fretting Republicans are not criticizing Speaker John Boehner’s bargaining position, at least not publicly. Instead, House Republicans are singing somewhat reluctantly from the same hymnal.
“I think it’s the stupidest way to do business,” says Hal Rogers of Kentucky, the powerful appropriations-committee chairman. “I don’t like any across-the-board cuts,” such as the defense sequester. But he won’t break ranks.
The reason for Republican unity is strategic. Boehner is attempting to force President Barack Obama to negotiate on his terms. Republicans are open to replacing the $85 billion in cuts, which were included as part of a debt-limit agreement in 2011, but most are unwilling to replace them with taxes.
“We know what the menu of options are: cuts and reforms that we can put in place to put us on a sound fiscal path,” Boehner told reporters on Wednesday. “I don’t like the sequester,” he added, signaling his sympathy for the concerns of his frustrated colleagues. “But Americans do not support sacrificing real spending cuts for more tax hikes.”
The problem for Boehner is that while his members generally support his position, they are unhappy about having to explain these cuts back home. Privately, GOP members say, they never thought that Congress would actually implement these specific cuts.
“We all voted for this, but we thought at the time that both parties wouldn’t want to see this happen, so it’d make us work together,” says a House Republican close to the leadership. “Both parties still don’t want to do this, but it looks like we may be forced to, if the president keeps insisting on new taxes.”
Sources close to Boehner say the speaker is not going to budge, even if the pressure from the White House and fellow Republicans mounts. “The conference is firm and united against tax hikes,” says a Boehner aide.
But there is a sense among Boehner allies that the speaker would swiftly cut a new deal with Democrats to replace the cuts, if Democrats are willing to propose new cuts without requiring revenue as part of any agreement.
As Boehner and Obama clash about the structure of a potential replacement package, though, House Republicans are continuing to squirm. Outside the House chamber on Wednesday afternoon, a cluster of GOP members openly spoke about their growing unease, and the necessity of a compromise before March 1, when the cuts will be implemented. “Both sides need to come to the table,” says Rodney Davis (R., Ill.), a freshman.
Republicans also tell us that they’re hearing criticism from the defense industry, which is bracing for the cuts and calling its longtime Capitol Hill supporters on a daily basis. Their calls have had an impact. On Monday, Tom Rooney of Florida, an Army veteran, told Politico that he “would rather have tax increases than cut out defense.”
According to House insiders, the White House thinks it can slowly move more Republicans to Rooney’s position if defense companies and military leaders keep rapping Congress to replace the cuts. On Wednesday, a group of defense contractors huddled with Obama advisers at the White House. “For some of these major companies, the impacts would be long-lasting,” warned press secretary Jay Carney at a press conference.
Representative Tom Cole (R., Okla.), a top Boehner ally, says House Republicans are well aware of the public-relations effort over on Pennsylvania Avenue, but until the president deals with Republicans on their terms, there won’t be movement. “I think I can read the conference pretty well,” he says. “Either there is going to be a renegotiated set of cuts, or these things are going to be the cuts. I sit on the defense-appropriations subcommittee, and yes, people are worried, but this is the plan.”
Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, who was meeting with a few of his former colleagues on Wednesday at the Capitol, says Boehner’s playbook is “sharp,” since defense spending “can always be replaced during the appropriations process, after the cuts are put into place.”
“You can always put money back in for defense,” DeLay says. “I think Boehner is going to stick with the sequester since the cuts are already happening, and if he needs to do something later, he can. I don’t think the president realizes how Boehner has the upper hand.”
“It’s a shame the president didn’t learn much while he was here,” DeLay added, winking, as he stepped into an elevator near the rotunda.
As the clock ticks, House Republicans and Obama aides aren’t the only players. Senate Democrats, who are at their annual retreat in Maryland this week, have urged the president to find a solution, since many of them represent states with many constituents involved in defense-related work. How Democrats push the president may be just as important as the GOP’s strategizing. House Republicans are hoping that Senate Democrats ask the president to take his request for taxes off the table and work with Boehner to find different cuts.
Early Wednesday, a group of Republicans in both chambers were scrambling to line up support for a short-term fix that would temporarily postpone the cuts until Congress came up with a permanent replacement. The proposal, which was crafted by numerous GOP senators and Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, would also freeze congressional pay and cut the federal workforce by 10 percent.
Republican senators John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) are leading the charge for the postponement, but for the moment, House Republicans are not signing on. Senate GOP sources say McCain and his colleagues want their plan to be ready for passage if Boehner decides he wants more time to work on a replacement as the deadline nears.
“There are a lot of Boeing and Lockheed Martin people in the suburbs who are trying to replace these defense cuts,” says Jim Gerlach, a Republican from a more moderate district outside of Philadelphia. “We’re also hearing from health and human-services groups. But the bottom line is, we’ve passed solutions, and we’re tired about the president telling us it’s our responsibility to come up with all of the answers. We want him to see the light — and he’s got enough revenue already.”
Meanwhile, some conservative House members aren’t exactly grumbling about the ax looming over the defense budget. “Oh, this is happening, and that’s fine by me,” says Representative Paul Broun of Georgia. Representative Dave Schweikert of Arizona agrees. At a recent town-hall meeting, he told his constituents that many Republicans are actually quite open to defense cuts.
“This leftist guy almost couldn’t believe what I was telling him,” Schweikert recalls. “He said, ‘I thought Republicans don’t cut defense.’ And I told him that he had heard wrong. We’ve got to get fiscal discipline in this country, and I, for one, am willing to look at everything.”
Boehner shares the sentiment. At the end of his Wednesday press conference, he sounded exasperated by the president’s unwillingness to cut spending. “At some point, Washington has to deal with its spending problem,” he said. “Now I’ve watched them kick this can down the road for 22 years since I’ve been here. I’ve had enough of it.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor. Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.