Jun 04, 2023

McCarthy and McConnell show signs of a split on defense spending


Hawks in Congress had hoped to pad the Pentagon's coffers with a supplemental later this year. The Senate GOP leader is on board. The speaker is another story.

By Anthony Adragna, Connor O’Brien, Joe Gould and Nancy Vu

06/06/2023 02:23 PM EDT

Updated:06/06/2023 07:24 PM EDT

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A schism is opening between Congress’ two top Republican leaders over how much to hike defense spending and future aid to Ukraine.

One day after Speaker Kevin McCarthy came out against exceeding the spending caps set by his debt-limit deal with President Joe Biden, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dug in to insist that more must be done to support the nation's defense interests.

McConnell took to the floor to call the Biden administration's defense budget, whose levels the bipartisan debt deal matched, "simply insufficient given the major challenges that our nation faces." He cited "growing threats from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and terrorists emboldened by America's retreat from Afghanistan."

That puts the Senate GOP leader in line with hawks vowing to push for a fresh defense spending bill to pad the Pentagon's coffers, which they say got short shrift in the Biden-McCarthy deal plan to the detriment of U.S. national security. It's a significant bit of daylight between McConnell and McCarthy — and a sign of intra-GOP tension to come over whether to approve new help for Ukraine in its war against Russia.

Most Republicans were loath to discuss the split publicly. But not Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the lead advocate for an extra defense spending infusion.

"The speaker will never convince me that 2 percent below actual inflation is fully funding the Defense Department," Graham said in a statement. "That cannot be the position of the Republican Party without some context here."

And some Democrats were blunt about the McConnell-McCarthy divide.

"There's a conflict in the messages coming from the two Republican leaders," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told reporters, making clear that he would back a defense supplemental bill.

McConnell's remarks came one day after McCarthy indicated defense spending should stick to the deal he reached with the White House that capped it at the administration's request of $886 billion.

"Why do you move to a supplemental when we just passed" the debt accord, McCarthy said Monday night. "If the idea of the supplemental is to go around the agreement we just came to, I think we’ve got to walk through appropriations."

It's unclear if the speaker will budge in the coming months. If he doesn't, Republicans who had supported the debt limit deal despite the defense caps may have no space to alter it.

While few Senate Republicans criticized McCarthy's position directly, acknowledging the challenge of his tiny majority, they seemed unruffled by the likelihood that their push for more Ukraine support might stall in the House.

"Guess we’ll find out soon enough, probably," if the House will go along, said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the chamber's No. 2 Republican.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said talk of a defense supplemental was "maybe a little premature" and that he understood McCarthy's "sensitivity to [conservatives since] he just cut a deal. Among Senate Republicans "there's some divergence" on the topic, Cornyn added, "but I’d say the majority certainly support what we’re doing in Ukraine and understand the need for a strong defense."

Defense hawks in the House who want to use a supplemental to pad the Pentagon will have a tough task getting past McCarthy, who's under pressure from his right flank to gut spending. A push to hike only defense money could also run aground if Democrats seek more domestic funding in exchange for their votes, which would likely be needed.

Some House conservatives, meanwhile, hailed McCarthy's comments and vowed to steadfastly fight more Ukraine war funding. Asked if there was any chance additional aid to Ukraine could pass this Congress, firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said: "Hell no."

She added: "I will not vote for it and I will whip people against it."

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who also opposes extra Pentagon spending, said she wants a strong defense but she's convinced it can be achieved for less money.

"I very much want us to be the strongest military in the world. If we’re not going to increase spending any more than it is, how do we be more efficient, and be more nimble? That's what we’ve got to do." Mace said.

Republicans are not alone in splitting on the matter. Some progressive Democrats are weary of additional Pentagon spending, while Democratic backers of Ukraine aid said it will ultimately be up to McCarthy to round up sufficient support.

The legislation to avert a debt default cleared last week after senators extracted a pledge from Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and McConnell that the agreement wouldn't limit the Senate's ability to spend emergency funds on responses to China, Russia and Iran — or non-defense needs.

That vow could easily apply to a bill giving more assistance to Ukraine, which could run short of aid over the next few months.

But any end-run around the defense caps must get past McCarthy, who's facing threats from hard-right members to oust him if he doesn't keep slashing spending. It's rare to see a Republican speaker has come out publicly against a defense spending increase.

"Only the speaker can explain to you how serious he is about stopping some kind of a supplemental" for defense, said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a senior appropriator.

"There's a number of people in the conference that support funding Ukraine and continue to support funding Ukraine," he added.

The debt deal quashed plans by the House Armed Services Committee to endorse a bipartisan hike to Biden's Pentagon budget for a third year in a row. The panel now plans to use the new, lower cap as it considers its annual Pentagon policy bill this month.

That doesn't mean House Republicans are giving up on a supplemental, though. Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) is making the case for extra spending aimed at China, beyond what the debt deal allows.

"It is premature to be talking about a supplemental right now," Rogers said. "But we will need a supplemental later this year, for China specifically."

Rogers added that he doesn't see his approach as contradicting what McCarthy said.

On Monday, the speaker stressed the need to find "efficiency and savings" in the Defense Department, citing its inability to pass an audit and the slow pace of acquisitions. "There's a lot of places for reform where we can have a lot of savings," he said.

He defended the deal's defense level as a "sweet spot" that reflects a 3 percent increase over this year's national defense budget when, McCarthy noted, some House Republicans wanted deeper cuts.

The political dynamics could change, however, with defense hawks pointing to the continued need to arm Ukraine and position the military to deter China in the Pacific.

"It sucks. We’ve got divided government. Nobody gets 100 percent of what they want," Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) said of the pact. "The deal's less than a week old. So I think all this talk of supplementals and this and that is premature and wild speculation."

Still, some House GOP backers of additional Ukraine aid are ready for the sort of heated discussion with McCarthy's right flank that a Senate-backed defense spending push might spark.

"The people who are against doing [more aid] are wrong because that means they’re for Russia winning and anyone who denies that fact is just being naive," said Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas).

"It's very, very frustrating," Crenshaw added. "We’re going to have that debate and the speaker should let us have that debate."

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