One of the least covered aspects of the debt limit negotiations has been defense spending. Obama administration officials and congressional Democrats have indicated that the White House would like to include significant defense cuts as part of an eventual deal, even beyond the $400 billion in cuts to security spending over the next twelve years that the president announced in April.
Yet during his press conference on Friday, Obama criticized the defense cuts proposed by the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission in December, saying: “I think we need to cut defense, but as commander in chief, I’ve got to make sure that we’re cutting it in a way that recognizes we’re still in the middle of a war, we’re winding down another war, and we’ve got a whole bunch of veterans that we’ve got to care for as they come home.”
This is not the first time the president has tried to play the role of a prudent commander in chief protecting the defense budget. In February, the White House threatened to veto H.R. 1, the continuing resolution that provided $17 billion less for the Department of Defense than the administration had requested. The White House said that the cuts would undermine national security.
In both cases, the president has been pressuring the Pentagon behind the scenes to come up with additional cuts while simultaneously warning of the perils of cutting too much from defense. Given that his allies on Capitol Hill are the new face of the defense cutting caucus – the recently released Senate Democratic budget calls for $800 billion in cuts to defense – it would be nice if the president aimed his ire at Democrats this time.
Unfortunately, Republicans have given the president plenty of room to posture. With a few notable exceptions, such as House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon and Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, few congressional Republicans have said anything in defense of the Pentagon budget, even as rumors of significant cuts swirl around Washington.
Now President Obama is again trying to act like the responsible steward of our nation’s military. The key question in the weeks to come is whether Republicans will let him continue to play shell games with the defense budget or instead use this opportunity to call his bluff.