GOP Rep. Buck McKeon: Tax Cuts not as Important as Defense Spending

GOP Rep. Buck McKeon conceded he would raise taxes rather than cut defense. Is this the end of him?

The Republican chairman of the influential House Armed Services Committee said Monday if forced to choose, he would prefer tax increases over further cuts to the defense budget.

“If it came that I had only two choices, one was a tax increase and one was a cut in defense over and above where we already are, I would go to strengthen defense,” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon confirmed to The Daily Beast during a forum at American Enterprise Institute.

The comments from the California Republican are the latest sign of a painful divide inside the GOP over the party’s three-decade commitment—dating back to the Reagan years—to a strong military and the Tea Party’s new pressure to radically cut the size of government to reduce historic budget deficits. There are also signs that the hard line the GOP has taken against no new taxes might be softening in some corners, even though many Republicans have signed pledges from the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform.

There have been other signs over the past few weeks. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, one of the Republicans on the 12-member congressional supercommittee tasked this fall with finding new budget savings, said he would walk off the committee if it supported more military cuts. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, another Republican on the supercommittee, said it was indefensible for corporations to pay little or no taxes.

The issue now faces the pressure of a hard deadline: the budget supercommittee must reach agreement by Nov. 23 on another $1.5 trillion to cut from the federal budget over the next decade or automatic spending cuts will be triggered—which would chop $564 billion out of the defense budget over the next 10 years.

McKeon has quietly been leading a campaign to persuade Tea Party freshmen inside the GOP to spare the military from additional cuts. The delicate balance was evident in McKeon’s response Monday.

McKeon prefaced his remarks by saying “I have never voted for a tax increase and I don’t plan on voting for a tax increase.” McKeon conceded that “this is just me and this is probably a good way to lose an election, but that’s not the reason I’m here.”

Within hours, McKeon’s comments reverberated around Washington. Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, the group that urges Republican candidates to sign a pledge not to raise taxes, criticized the California congressman.

“It’s like playing chess with a guy who announces where he is going to move,” he said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Guess how the Democrats are going to approach him now. He just said, ‘if you tell me this is the choice, I will fold.’”

“He was elected by his constituents promising to them that he will never raise taxes, I hope he keeps his word,” Norquist said.

Claude Chafin, communications director for the House Armed Services Committee, said McKeon’s comments were “predicated on the idea that the supercommittee would fail to do its job of making entitlement programs sustainable, thus forcing an extreme scenario between raising taxes and imposing crippling cuts to America’s military.”