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Veterans of the US military now serving in Congress are emerging as critics in the Republican Party against increased defense spending, complicating work to complete a budget for next year and avoid a government shutdown next month.
Cracks in decades-old Republican orthodoxy supporting a robust and expensive national defense are already making it harder to fund US support for Ukraine’s defense against Russia and set long-term military strategy both at home and abroad.
David McIntosh, who as president of the Club for Growth supports fiscal hawks in congressional races, said he’s “seeing more and more Republicans” who served in the military question whether the Pentagon is wisely spending its money, opening the path to a possible coalition with Democrats already suspicious of military spending.
“You’ll see us change the direction there,” he said.
House Republicans have proposed giving the Pentagon and defense-related activities $826.4 billion in discretionary funding for the next fiscal year starting Oct. 1 (H.R. 4365), a 3.3% increase from the last year and over a quarter billion dollars more than the Biden administration requested.
But a handful of Republicans have joined Democrats to repeatedly block floor debate as fiscal hawks in the GOP conference seek broad cuts to government spending, raising the chances of a funding lapse and government shutdown this weekend.
The increased opposition to defense spending marks a new turn for some Republicans who have made military might a cornerstone of their campaigns while portraying Democrats as weak on defense. To be sure, there are veterans who have long questioned the government’s military policies. But many tended to be Democrats, such as diplomat and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), who criticized US involvement in Vietnam during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.
Jason Beardsley, director of veterans initiatives at the libertarian-leaning Koch network’s Stand Together who served in the Army and Navy, said those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq are less likely to be “easily deceived by casual political rhetoric” in favor of increased Pentagon spending after witnessing “the true cost of war up close and personal.”
“We need well-defined objectives, strategic spending, and accountability – not just bigger budgets,” Beardsley wrote in an email. “The time has come for Congress to prioritize sustainability and credibility over unchecked expenditure. Our nation’s future security depends on it.”
“Everyone who served will tell you things that are wasted,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), an Army veteran who serves as whip of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said of the Pentagon’s budget. “There’s opportunities to do everything better and to be more focused.”
Republican military veterans have also led the charge against further security assistance for Ukraine in its ongoing effort to rebut Russia’s invasion, a key sticking point in congressional haggling over a stopgap measure to avoid a government shutdown Oct. 1.
Much of the current criticism is aimed at the Biden administration’s stewardship of the Pentagon and involvement in Ukraine, which has largely been supported by Democrats. Still, a number of GOP veterans, embracing a more populist message, have also taken aim at military spending plans put together by their own leadership.
Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.), who enlisted in the Navy after the 9/11 attacks, was one of the few Republicans to vote in July against the annual military policy bill (H.R. 2670) and against a measure setting floor debate (H. Res. 712) for that legislation’s funding.
Crane in a video said he supported DOD funding but protested overall government spending, “never-ending wars,” and aid for Ukraine.
Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.), an Air Force veteran who like Crane is a member of the Freedom Caucus, called for “a complete audit for wasteful and weaponized spending” at the Pentagon.
“The DOD needs to direct the billions it gets a year to taking care of its troops instead of funding woke projects and other countries’ wars,” Luna said in a statement provided by a spokesperson.
GOP Reps. Clay Higgins (La.), Greg Steube (Fla.), and Troy Nehls (Texas) — all Army veterans — joined Davidson, Crane, Luna and other fellow Republicans to send a letter last week declaring their opposition to further aid for Kyiv until the Biden administration provides a better accounting of support to date.
Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), a Green Beret veteran of the war in Afghanistan, in recent Fox News op-ed declared an end to “Ukraine’s blank check from Congress,” citing in part past presidential administrations’ failure to “offer clear benchmarks for what a victory in Iraq or Afghanistan looked like. Nobody in this administration is even trying regarding Ukraine.”
Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), an appropriator and Navy SEAL, said the Defense Department’s bureaucracy needs to be “reorganized” for the first time since the Reagan administration. He said he supports the pending Pentagon funding bill, which he pointed out cuts its purchasing power in real terms thanks to inflation.
“If you can’t find fat in the military, you’re not looking,” Zinke said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Zach C. Cohen in Washington at email@example.com