Milbank: Mitt must choose between defense spending, tax cuts

By Dana Milbank, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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There have been many mendacious moments in this presidential campaign, but it will be hard to top what Republican Mitt Romney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference this week: President Barack Obama is seeking "an arbitrary, across-the-board budget reduction that would saddle the military with $1 trillion in cuts. Strategy is not driving the president's massive defense cuts. In fact, his own secretary of defense warned that these reductions would be devastating, and he's right. … This is no time for the president's radical cuts in our military."

Come again?

Romney is referring to the automatic spending cuts, or "sequestration," required by the Budget Control Act of 2011. For those suffering memory loss of the sort afflicting Romney, that legislation came about when Republicans threatened to throw the country into default unless Democrats agreed to automatic budget cuts if a "supercommittee" couldn't reach a bipartisan agreement, which it couldn't.

If the defense cuts are Obama's, they are also Republicans John Boehner's, Eric Cantor's, Mitch McConnell's and Jon Kyl's. The bill passed with the votes of a majority of House and Senate Republicans and the encouragement of -- wait for it -- Mitt Romney.

Romney's party continues to choose tax cuts over defense spending. The automatic defense cuts came about largely because Republicans on the supercommittee refused any tax increase. By coincidence, the choice between tax cuts and defense spending came to the Senate floor again Wednesday -- and Republicans again chose the cuts.

Senate Democrats brought up a largely symbolic proposal that would increase taxes on income above $250,000 -- and raise revenue by about $50 billion in 2013. That's roughly the same amount as the $55 billion in automatic defense cuts that would take place next year. Forced to choose which of their children they loved more -- tax cuts or defense spending -- Republicans didn't hesitate.

"A massive tax increase will bring our economy to its knees," said Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas said the answer was not to raise taxes but to "get our fiscal house back in order." The senators seemed not to grasp the irony that they were demanding fiscal discipline while the leader of their party has been calling for an additional $2.1 trillion for military spending in 10 years -- more than even the Joint Chiefs of Staff want.

Smoke screen

Republican leader McConnell belittled the Democrats' tax increase as only "enough revenue to operate the government for about a week." And yet Romney says the military would suffer an existential threat if it were cut by a similar amount? McConnell evidently recognized that he was in a bad spot, because he dropped his threat to block the Democrats' plan. "Ordinarily, Republicans would do everything we can to keep a plan as damaging as the Democrats' plan from passing," he said on the floor, "and the only reason we won't block it today is that we know it doesn't pass constitutional muster and won't become law because it didn't originate in the House." So he wouldn't block it because it's unconstitutional?

The proposal faces a near-certain death in the House, but the dilemma isn't going away. If Romney wants to make good on his vow to increase defense spending by $2.1 trillion, and he wants to make good on his support for the tax cuts incorporated in the House Republicans' budget, he would need to cut the rest of the government's functions -- including Social Security and Medicare benefits -- by about 14 percent, according to the Center for American Progress. If Romney wants to keep his vow not to cut Social Security and Medicare for those age 55 and older, he'd need to shut down all functions of the departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, Interior, Justice, Labor and Treasury as well as the National Institutes of Health.

That hardly seems plausible; nobody would be left to collect tax revenue for the Pentagon. So which one will Romney choose: defense spending or tax cuts?