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WASHINGTON — As U.S. House Republicans debate what to cut out of federal spending in their debt ceiling fight with Democrats, a handful of Texans have a clear message: Do not mess with the military.
Republicans in the majority are using the debt ceiling as a negotiating tool with the Biden administration to reduce federal spending, but they are divided over where to trim the fat. Some, including Texans who have long defended military spending, are asserting Congress shouldn’t touch defense funding, while others say all funding other than entitlements should be on the table. It’s an uncertainty that Republicans can hardly afford with only a six-vote margin of control in the House.
Texas Republicans have eked out central roles in the debt ceiling discussions within their party. U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, and Kay Granger, House Appropriations chair, are both known defense hawks who are against cutting any military spending. Meanwhile, Reps. Jodey Arrington, House Budget Committee chair, and Chip Roy, a member of the Freedom Caucus, are willing to scorch earth to balance the country’s books. Roy finagled new influence within his party after the fraught power balance created during this year’s tumultuous House Speaker election.
The stakes are high. The Biden administration urged Congress last month to swiftly raise the debt ceiling in order to pay off interest on its debts and to finance federal programs already approved by Congress. Failure to do so could mean the country defaulting on its debt — which it has never done before — and gravely damaging faith in the country’s economy and assets.
It’s an outcome both parties agree would be catastrophic for the world. The federal government is projected to run out of money in the summer, at which point Congress will be forced to raise the debt ceiling in order to avoid extreme measures.
“I think it’s fair to say this is the most serious situation concerning the debt ceiling since 2011,” said U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
Defense spending has steadily increased under both Democratic and Republican presidents and Congresses. Last year’s federal spending bill included a 10% increase in defense spending, growth that defense hawks in the Republican conference, like McCaul and Granger, assert is necessary with growing threats from China, Russia and Iran. The bill included about $45 billion in aid for Ukraine and NATO in a bid to stave off further aggression from Russia.
But a vocal handful of far-right Republicans in the conference are skeptical about sending more money to defend Ukraine. They argue securing the U.S.’ southern border should be a bigger priority. It’s a view that McCaul calls dangerous.
“If Ukraine falls, Chairman Xi in China’s going to invade Taiwan,” McCaul said in a CNN interview. “They talk about the border — not mutually exclusive at all. We can do both. We’re a great country.”
Last year’s spending package to fund the federal government took months of negotiations to pass, with high potential for a collapse before the end of Congress. The uncertainty led to fears within the Defense Department that it would not be able to plan its financial agenda just as Russia threatened to escalate its war in Ukraine, and defense spending supporters aren’t keen on a repeat.
Granger’s committee determines how much money should go to individual government programs, and although she opposed the spending bill because of its high spending on non-defense priorities, the Fort Worth Republican is a major supporter of defense spending, including manufacturing in her North Texas district.
Roy said he would prefer to preserve or even increase defense spending in the next budget process, but he isn’t ruling out trimming the defense fat in order to balance the country’s books. When asked if defense spending was still in the mix to be cut, he said, “You’ve got to go figure out how to get it done.”
Roy also voted against a $40.1 billion aid package for Ukraine last May, shortly after Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, though his primary objection to the bill was the manner in which it was rushed to the floor, barring members from studying and debating it before it was put up for a vote. He also raised concerns with the lack of revenue streams to finance the bill, meaning another pile-on to the national debt.
Roy told The Texas Tribune his personal preference would be to lower all discretionary spending — other than defense — to levels from before the pandemic. He would not touch mandatory spending for entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security benefits. Doing so would be politically fraught with Republican voters, many of whom rely on the social spending benefits.
But that leaves few options for cutting, and Democrats have made it clear the kinds of cuts Republicans are pushing for on non-defense programs are a nonstarter.
“If you say we're gonna cut government but we’re not going to touch Social Security, Medicare or defense? OK, well, you’re talking about, you know, pennies on the dollar,” Boyle said. “Nondiscretionary defense includes a lot of important things: education, Pell Grants, health care for veterans. A number of things that, frankly, many of their members are for.”
“This is a little like saying, I’m going to go on a diet but I’m not going to cut out cheesecake, cookies and all sorts of sweets,” he added.
Republicans will need to get Democrats on board in the Senate, which is under Democratic control.
Republicans have long been fearful that the ballooning national debt — much of which is taken out to pay off past loans — is creating an unsustainable burden for future generations. They view the impending debt limit as the perfect chance to force Democrats to get on board with provisions to rein in the deficit. Both parties have voted to raise the debt ceiling, and the national debt has increased steadily under both parties.
Far-right members of the House Republican conference, led by Roy, negotiated with Speaker Kevin McCarthy during his bid for the speakership to return overall discretionary spending to fiscal year 2022 levels, which were the spending levels implemented before last December’s $1.7 trillion government spending package. That would mean a cut to roughly $1.47 trillion in fiscal year 2024, which starts this October.
Previews of the current debate emerged then, when Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, voted against the package that set the rules for the current Congress and included the agreement to lower government spending.
“Putting millions of dollars on the fence is a bad idea. And yeah, especially now when we got a rising threat and China and threats to Taiwan,” Gonzales, a Navy veteran, said at the time.
Roy’s office sternly denied that defense cuts were ever part of any negotiations with party leadership at the time.
Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress and the White House say defaulting on the federal debt is too dangerous of a possibility to use as a bargaining chip and are demanding to raise the debt ceiling without any conditions. Boyle asserted that Congress will have to deliberate over how much money to spend in its annual budget and appropriations process anyway, and there was no need to tie spending to the debt ceiling.
But Arrington dismissed Democrats’ demands of a “clean” debt ceiling lift as unrealistic. Democrats will need Republicans’ support as much as Republicans need theirs to lift the debt ceiling, and he is refusing to pass on the chance to make spending cuts aligned with the agreement reached between Republican leadership and Roy’s dissenting camp in January.
“I don’t think the president will escape having to deal with negotiating some fiscal reforms in the most responsible way so that we can bend that debt curve, so that we can get on a sustainable path, stave off a debt crisis and act like adults,” Arrington said in an interview with Fox News.