Tea Party clashes with GOP establishment over defense 

The tension between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party insurgents erupted on the House floor for the first time Wednesday when 110 GOP representatives -- mostly freshmen and some longtime conservative gadflies -- broke from their leadership and most of their caucus in order to kill a defense contract. The vote highlighted an establishment-versus-Tea Party split that was glaring during the campaign season, and brought to the fore the uncomfortable question of defense spending. The amendment, killing the contract for a backup engine for the F-35 fighter, passed 233-198 Wednesday, but 130 of the 240 voting Republicans opposed the cut, including House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. This puts the GOP majority and its leadership at odds with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who doesn't want the backup engine, and former President George W. Bush, who also tried to kill it.

The Tea Partiers, who had already won some behind-the-scenes skirmishes over earmarks and spending cuts, scored their first floor victory on Wednesday. But the big spenders won the rest of the defense spending votes this week, and, tellingly on each one, a majority of Republicans followed Cantor and Boehner in opposing cuts. For most of the GOP, then, defense spending is a sacred cow.

Just as Democrats talk as if any federal budget cuts will result in starving kids and freezing poor people, Republicans invoke hyperbole to defend the Pentagon budget. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., a member of the Armed Services Committee, warned last month, "you can destroy our country by cutting defense."

Freshman Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., sounded a similar note: "Now is not the time to talk about defense cuts while we are engaged in two theaters with men and women in harm's way."

Why do most Republican congressmen refuse to cut defense spending? Do they really believe that in this part of government, unlike every other part, more money means greater effectiveness? Or is it the influence of the military-industrial complex, which the GOP has always treated well even though military contractors donate more money to Democrats?

Maybe the party feels political pressure from its base to keep defense spending high. For instance, Hartzler won in an upset last fall thanks to the backing of Sarah Palin, who has said defense cuts should be off the table.

But conservatives should understand that equating the DOD's budget with national security is a fallacy. Libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul, a hero in large corners of the GOP base, put it well at last week's Conservative Political Action Committee: "Military spending and defense spending are not the same thing." Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., proposed three amendments Tuesday to cut military spending that he said had no relation to defense.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., whose conservative credentials are not in question, is on board with Paul and Flake in trying to trim military fat. He's advocated ending the National Guard's involvement in local anti-drug enforcement and getting the Army out of breast-cancer research (there's nothing military-specific about this research).

Billions could be cut just by following the advice of Gates, including mothballing three of our 11 aircraft carriers.

Every wasteful defense project, however, supports hundreds of jobs (and at least a handful of well-connected defense contractors). Republicans have made "jobs" the talking point of the moment, and putting shipyard workers in Newport News, Va., out of work would probably qualify, in the parlance of today, as a "job-killing proposal."

The spectacle of Republicans -- so many of whom tout defense above all -- using our military as a public-works jobs program is disheartening.

But the clout of Pentagon-dependent workers is nothing compared to that of the military-industrial complex. Congressional candidates raised more than $2 million each from contracting giants Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon in 2010, with most going to Democrats. No matter: Republicans have aggressively backed almost every new weapons system proposed.

Which makes the F-35 vote on Wednesday so striking.

Pratt & Whitney won the contract to build the engine for the new fighter jet. A joint venture of Rolls-Royce and General Electric also wants a contract, arguing that as the engines develop, need repair, and need updating, the military would benefit from having two options. Gates, however, has said this duplication would be wasteful.

But GE Aviation would be working on this engine in the Cincinnati district Speaker Boehner. Rolls-Royce recently opened a new aviation plant in Virginia, Cantor's home state.

Without the Tea Party, Boehner and Cantor would still be in charge of the minority. If the F-35 victory emboldens the Tea Partiers, Boehner and Cantor may feel that they're not really in charge of the majority.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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