Freedom Caucus Flexible on Military Funding Hike in Budget

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By Jonathan Nicholson

House Freedom Caucus members appear receptive to boosting the Pentagon’s share of appropriations for the next budget year above the current statutory cap, potentially easing a sore point for House Republicans on the budget.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he felt members of the group, comprised of conservative and libertarian House Republicans, gave a respectful hearing to him and his call for a boost in defense spending exceeding the amount proposed in President Donald Trump’s budget.

“I talked to them about what we need to fix our military,” Thornberry told reporters after meeting with the group late June 13. “I think most members on my committee think this is the time to change the trajectory here and that Band-Aid-type solutions have to come to an end.”

“We’re willing to look at numbers above the BCA caps,” said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), referring to the 2011 Budget Control Act’s annual limits on appropriations for defense and non-defense purposes.

‘Any Option': Thornberry

Under the BCA, defense spending would be limited to $549 billion in fiscal 2018, while non-defense funding would be capped at $516 billion, for a total of $1.065 trillion. Trump has proposed boosting the defense share to $603 billion, offset by a similar size cut to non-defense, to $462 billion.

Thornberry proposed boosting defense funding even further, to $640 billion. Meadows said the group has taken no position on an increase beyond the caps. “The only consensus seems to be about increasing defense above the $1.065 trillion,” he said.

During the administration of President Barack Obama, Democrats insisted that an easing of the caps for defense be linked to an equal easing for the non-defense cap. But with a Republican president, Republican lawmakers have said that pattern would not be repeated and pointed to a larger defense boost in the fiscal 2017 omnibus law as breaking that precedent.

But with Democrats still able to filibuster funding bills in the Senate, Democrats hope to maintain some leverage. And Thornberry declined to say whether he would oppose an increase in non-defense funding to get a boost in defense dollars.

“I’m for doing what’s right for defense and I’ll look at any option to get us there,” Thornberry said.

Need ‘Real Reform’

That could lead to problems with deficit hawks. In 2015, a flap over Overseas Contingency Operations funding for the military led to a one-day delay in getting the budget through the House Budget Committee as anti-spending members prevailed over defense advocates. But on the House floor later, defense hawks prevailed with an amendment to boost OCO funding.

Meadows said HFC members were willing to look at more money for the Pentagon as long as it was tied to changes such as reductions in Pentagon bureaucracy. “For a number of our guys, if you couple real reform, they’re willing to look at numbers above the BCA cap to make it work,” he said.

He warned, however, that defense hawks should not assume support for a defense policy authorization bill at the $640 billion level Thornberry is proposing as a possible marker for later appropriations at that level. “To suggest that [a National Defense Authorization Act] could pass at $640 [billion] without agreement on the other items would be a false assumption,” he said.

Rules Different

Instead, Meadows said various groups within the Republican Party should be brought together to hash out the various aspects of a budget resolution. Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) is set to meet with board members of the HFC on June 15.

“We’re willing to negotiate in good faith with Chairman Black and Chairman Thornberry and our leadership as well as some of the Tuesday Group, Republican Study Committee group. What we recommended to leadership is we all get into a room in the next week to 10 days,” Meadows said.

Meadows said the group is wants to see reconciliation instructions for a tax overhaul and for cutting spending in entitlement programs. Specifically, he said they want to see work requirements and time limits on federal aid to the poor that would save about $170 billion over 10 years as part of larger spending cut package of around $300 billion.

Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) also said Thornberry’s pitch was well-received. Brat was one of the anti-spending Budget Committee members that held up the budget in 2015, but he said he didn’t expect anything similar this year.

“That was back without a Republican president. So the rules of the game are a little different,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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