Back home, tea partyers clamoring for the debt-ridden government to slash spending say nothing should be off limits. Tea party-backed lawmakers echo that argument, and they're not exempting the military's multibillion-dollar budget in a time of war.
That demand is creating hard choices for the newest members of Congress, especially Republicans who owe their elections and solid House majority to the influential grass-roots movement. Cutting defense and canceling weapons could mean deep spending reductions and high marks from tea partyers as the nation wrestles with a $1.3 trillion deficit. Yet it also could jeopardize thousands of jobs when unemployment is running high.
House Republican leaders specifically exempted defense, homeland security and veterans' programs from spending cuts in their party's "Pledge to America" campaign manifesto last fall. But the House's new majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., has said defense programs could join others on the cutting board.
The defense budget is about $700 billion annually. Few in Congress have been willing to make cuts as U.S. troops fight in Afghanistan and finish the operation in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a recent pre-emptive move, proposed $78 billion in spending cuts and an additional $100 billion in cost-saving moves. While that amounts to $13 billion less than the Pentagon wanted to spend in the coming year, it still stands as 3 percent growth after inflation is taken into account.
That's why tea party groups say if the government is going to cut spending, the military's budget needs to be part of the mix.
"The widely held sentiment among Tea Party Patriot members is that every item in the budget, including military spending and foreign aid, must be on the table," said Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. "Everything is ultimately on the table," said Rep. Jon Runyan of New Jersey, a freshman Republican and a tea party favorite.
That view could produce a rough tenure for the 6-foot-7 former football player, who just earned a coveted spot on the House Armed Services Committee, a fierce protector of military interests. The congressman's district is home to Fort Dix.
No matter how much defense spending is trimmed, none of the cuts is likely to reduce the money that's available to the military to spend on the war fronts.
"We want to make sure men and women put in harm's way have the resources they need," said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa."That doesn't mean the entire defense budget has to be taken off the table," he added.