Some see Syria as edge for Obama in fiscal showdown

By Erik Wasson and Jeremy Herb
The Hill
08/31/13 06:00 AM ET

U.S. military action in Syria could give the White House an advantage in the looming fiscal showdown with congressional Republicans, according to defense and budget experts.

They said the Syria crisis could boost calls by President Obama and defense hawks to reverse the automatic spending cuts to the Pentagon known as sequestration.

Steve Bell, a budget expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said if the U.S. moves forward with military action, it will underline the arguments of those who say keeping the sequester in place impairs U.S. military readiness.

“I think it has the possibility of advancing fiscal talks, I really do,” he said.

He argued that if strikes against Syria are launched, it will be “very, very difficult to insist” on the defense sequester.

“Under those circumstances, I can see a [2014 continuing resolution] that would contain full funding for defense,” he said.

The White House has been banking on defense hawks within the GOP breaking ranks with Tea Party conservatives and embracing a debt deal that includes some higher taxes and reverses cuts to domestic programs.

Their hope is that the cuts to the Pentagon will grow so painful, some defense-minded lawmakers will accept more tax revenue as part of a deal to end the defense cuts.

That effort needs a shot in the arm.

Obama faced a setback this week when secretive White House debt talks with Senate GOP centrists were suspended indefinitely over the issue of new taxes. Experts also cautioned that for the Syrian action to move the fiscal goalposts, they will need to be successful and popular with the public.
The stakes for the Pentagon are high.

In March, the defense budget was automatically cut by about $37 billion. Because Congress has been unable to agree on a budget, the Pentagon faces another $52 billion in cuts in the next fiscal year that begins in October.

The link between the sequester and Syria is already being made.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Panel, issued a press release saying the U.S. cannot afford to go to war in Syria given the ongoing effects of defense sequestration.

“I cannot support military action in Syria unless the president presents to Congress his broader strategy in the region that addresses our national security interests and the budget to support it,” Inhofe said. “[Obama] has underfunded overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund, reduced base defense budget, and put into motion sequestration. Our military has no money left.”

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who wants the sequester maintained, said linking military action in Syria to the sequester will backfire, in part because the public doesn’t want to be involved in a fight with that country.

“I think people will try to misuse [Syria], and it will backfire very badly,” he said.

“The country doesn’t want them to do much or anything. There is not a lot of demand for something big and expensive.”

But Michael Herson, the president of American Defense International, a defense lobbying firm, said military action in Syria could boost the arguments of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who both want to reverse the sequester.

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