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New START, defense budget tough issues facing next Congress

Need to reduce debt also in play

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Regardless of Tuesday's midterm election results, the 112th Congress will face stark choices on national security issues ranging from arms control to the size of the defense budget.

Democrats are likely to bring the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, for a vote in the lame-duck session later this month. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, last week predicted many Republicans would oppose the treaty, which the Obama administration has made the centerpiece of its "reset" of relations with Russia.

Already some Republicans, such as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, have proposed cuts to defense spending.

The 18-member commission on the deficit has made it clear that it is at least considering reductions of the nearly $708 billion the administration is requesting for defense spending in 2011. The panel is expected to release its findings after the election.

The choice between defense spending and reducing the budget deficit could be a hard one for many of the "tea party" activists who have energized the Republican base on the issue of the out-of-control debt. The defense budget is by no means the largest piece of the budget pie (Social Security and Medicare are), but it does make up about one-fifth of the annual federal budget.

Some Republican strategists predict President Obama will reverse his position on steady increases on defense spending and force a Republican-controlled House to choose between the defense and the debt.

"What worries me is that Obama will respond to this deficit by trying to cut defense programs that he has wanted to get rid of all along," said Michael Goldfarb, who works for the Republican consulting firm Orion Strategies. "He will call it a 'new direction.' It's a lie, and it's a trap. Republicans will need [to] demand that he cut the wasteful government programs he started, not the defense programs that keep us safe."

Mr. Obama's Pentagon cut the F-22 fighter program in 2009 in favor of the Joint Strike Fighter, and he has slashed other weapons programs while increasing health benefits for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is expected to retire in 2011, also is conducting an audit of defense programs.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and the outgoing vice chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he could see a scenario in which Mr. Obama proposes new defense cuts for the 2012 budget.

"I think if Republicans go in and say 'no cuts to defense,' then we are no different than Obama. But if we say 'yes' to cuts across the board from the pre-stimulus budget, then that is the way to go," he said.

Mr. Hoekstra said it is a "bad idea to get into a situation where Republicans say there is no waste, fraud and abuse in the defense budgets." He also stressed that defense cuts should be part of overall budget reductions.

Some conservatives, sensing defense cuts could be coming, already have fired a pre-emptive shot. Last month, three leading conservatives - Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, Edwin J. Feulner of the Heritage Foundation and William Kristol of the Weekly Standard - co-signed an Op-Ed column urging tea party conservatives to resist the temptation to cut spending for an already overstretched military.

"I expect that, starting on Wednesday, ... we will stop seeing Republicans finger-wagging at Democrats over defense cuts and we will hear statements about everybody biting the bullet," said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. "If the Democrats put Medicare and Social Security on the table, the Republicans have to put defense and revenues on the table."

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