WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama prepares to meet today with Senate leaders to try to restart talks about the swollen national debt, some Republicans see a potential path to compromise: significant cuts in military spending.
Senior GOP lawmakers and leadership aides said it would be far easier to build support for a debt-reduction package that cuts the Pentagon budget — a key Democratic demand — than one that raises revenue by tinkering with the tax code. Last week, Republicans walked out of talks led by Vice President Joe Biden, insisting that the White House take tax increases off the table.
In listening sessions with their rank and file, House Republican leaders said they have found a surprising willingness to consider defense cuts that would have been unthinkable five years ago, when they last controlled the House. While the sessions have sparked heated debate on many issues, Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., the deputy GOP whip, said there are few lawmakers left who view the Pentagon budget as sacrosanct.
"When we say everything is on the table, that's what we mean," said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the No. 3 leader who has been hosting the listening sessions in his Capitol offices.
Freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., could serve as a poster boy for the new breed of conservatives who are eager to wipe out government waste and inefficiency, no matter where they find it. Kinzinger, an active-duty Air National Guardsman who flew missions in Iraq, fought successfully last month to cut a request for $100 million to purchase new flight suits for Air Force pilots. The old ones, Kinzinger argued, are good enough.
Defense spending is "a pillar of Republican strength. It's a pillar of national strength. Look, I know there are sacred cows," Kinzinger said. "But we cannot afford them anymore."
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has advocated for some cuts — especially related to costly new military hardware — but has also warned of the consequences of deep or across-the-board reductions that could jeopardize American military strength in the future.
With the clock ticking toward an Aug. 2 deadline, defense spending has been a major stumbling block in negotiations between the two parties. While both sides view the tax issue as the biggest hurdle, negotiators spent much of their final three-hour session bickering over agency spending before Republicans declared an impasse on Thursday, according to people familiar with the talks.
The White House has offered nearly $1 trillion in cuts to domestic agencies over the next decade, and another $300 billion from security agencies. But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., pressed for as much as $1.7 trillion in cuts. And he wanted an overall cap on spending that would leave the door open to slashing that sum from domestic programs — such as education, food safety, health research and criminal justice — when lawmakers draft spending bills next spring.
"Everything is on the table," Cantor said. But the decision on how much to cut defense "belongs in the appropriations process."
White House budget director Jack Lew objected to the Cantor proposal, and the meeting grew heated. Democrats said they could never support a package that targets only social programs and extracts no pain from the military, big business or the wealthy.
But if Republicans agree to significant Pentagon cuts, the White House would find it easier to accept a deal that includes less in new revenue, people familiar with the talks said.
The GOP has not been entirely closed to tax changes, according to people in both parties. They mentioned a proposal to adjust the way business inventory is taxed, which could generate as much as $70 billion over the next decade, as one potential area of compromise. Another $60 billion could be generated by wiping out subsidies for ethanol blenders. A similar proposal passed the Senate two weeks ago with overwhelming Republican support.
The White House may be more interested in such a deal than congressional Democrats, who have been adamant about raising taxes on the wealthy. "Make no mistake, there needs to be revenues in any deal," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a conference call with reporters Friday. "Republicans cannot insist on protecting tax breaks for millionaires at the expense of our economy."
Still, some Democrats said they place a higher priority on defense cuts.
"Defense spending is damaging spending. Many of us believe it does more harm than good to our people, and to our reputation in the world," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "If we can get $100 billion from reducing unneeded military spending, that's better than $100 billion in taxation."
Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a leader among the 87 House Republican freshmen, said the military budget is widely viewed as loaded with pork that has little bearing on the day-to-day battles in Afghanistan and other hot spots.
"If there are sacred cows, we ought to find them and get rid of them," said Scott, who represents a district where more than a third of voters hail from military families.
"I would never support anything that would reduce the safety of the troops on the ground," added Rep. Robert Hurt, R-Va. "But bureaucracy is bureaucracy and there are ways to get at it, even in the Pentagon."