WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican lawmaker who is expected to play a central role in setting military policy in the new Republican-led Congress said on Wednesday he wanted to boost defense spending but would not alter President Barack Obama’s deadline to start pulling out of Afghanistan.
Analysts say the Republican capture of the House of Representatives on Tuesday may stiffen U.S. resolve in the war in Afghanistan, but raises questions about a range of defense issues, from defense contracts to gays in the military
Howard “Buck” McKeon, expected to become the next chair of the House Armed Services Committee, balked at Obama’s plans to potentially push through a repeal of the military’s ban on gays in the “lame duck” session before the new Congress takes power in January.
“I think that’s unwise,” McKeon told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“I think the only reason they’re trying to do it is political. And I don’t think the military should be used as a political football,” he said, adding decisions like repealing the 17-year-old ban should not be made by outgoing lawmakers who had lost their elections.
Republicans in Congress, including Obama’s 2008 presidential rival John McCain, have pressed the president to back away from his July 2011 date to begin troop withdrawals, saying it has backfired and fueled Taliban rhetoric about waiting out the West.
McKeon said he always had objected to the July 2011 deadline for precisely that reason. But when asked whether he would seek to change Obama’s mind or change the drawdown date, he said: “No. I think that’s installed.”
“We just want to be very careful that this isn’t used as an opportunity to pull everybody out, and leave the Afghans hanging, and leave the potential for al Qaeda to come back in for another safe haven,” he said.
McKeon added that any withdrawal needed to be conditions-based and informed by the commanders on the ground.
McKeon also praised a crackdown on militants in Pakistan under the Obama administration, which has included covert strikes by pilotless drone aircraft.
“I think that all we have to do is just make sure that we keep the pressure on and understand that we have to win in both places (Afghanistan and Pakistan),” he said.
With Republicans controlling the House and focused on the economy rather than the war, which was not a major issue in the election, analysts said Obama could feel less pressure to make the more sizable reductions in U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“You could get, on Afghanistan, a little more space for the administration,” said Daniel Markey, an international security analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This is not going to be the primary focus of the new Republican majority in the House.”
The sheer size of the defense budget — about 19 percent of the total federal budget and half of discretionary spending not already mandated for a particular purpose — makes it harder to balance the budget without touching military spending.
That tension between spending on the war and the need to trim the budget could lead Congress to target the billions of dollars in civilian spending going to Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of the war effort.
“You continue to have this strong right arm of the military and this increasingly spindly left arm of the civilian side and that gets further hollowed out,” Markey said.
If there is an intraparty squabble over defense spending, McKeon will be on the side of bigger defense budgets.
McKeon said he opposed the Obama administration’s plans to boost core defense spending by just 1 percent over inflation, a figure Defense Secretary Robert Gates is trying cope with by streamlining defense spending to free up more cash.
Gates proposed a 2011 defense budget of $548.9 billion, not including war spending.
The question has broad implications for the Pentagon’s largest suppliers — Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co, Northrop Grumman Corp, BAE Systems Plc, General Dynamics Corp and Raytheon Co.
“We have underlying costs that are taking such a high percentage of our budget that we’re not going to have enough to do the (necessary) R&D and do the weaponry spending,” he said.
“I think we need more money in defense and I think we need to do a better job spending that money.”
Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Jackie Frank