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Rift looming on the right over need to cut defense budget

By Jennifer Rizzo, CNN National Security Producer
  • Some newcomers believe defense shouldn't be sacrosanct
  • One top Republican calls defense cutting a "red line"
  • One new official not ready to take a stand

Washington (CNN) -- There is a looming rift on the right as many newly elected Republican congressional members want defense spending on the chopping block as they head to Capitol Hill, a position not shared by some of the old school Republicans in Congress.

Military and foreign policy analysts see the incoming group as game-changers in the Republican party.

"Within the Republican party, with the rising Tea Party caucus, you're going to see, I think, very confusing but interesting politics on this issue over the next couple of years," said Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University.

"The reality is if the Republicans want agreement in their caucus and if they want to join with the Democrats in any way in an effort of deficit reduction all of these pieces need to be on the table and that means defense."

Sen.-elect Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who has been outspoken on the matter, has broken from the traditional Republican party line on the issue of defense spending.

"Republicans traditionally say, oh, we'll cut domestic spending, but we won't touch the military. The liberals, the ones who are good, will say, 'Oh, we'll cut the military, but we won't cut domestic spending," Paul said on ABC's "This Week." "Bottom line is you have to look at everything across the board."

Praising Paul earlier this month for saying he would go after defense waste, Sen. Tom Coburn , R-Oklahoma, called taking defense spending off the table "indefensible."

"We need to protect our nation, not the Pentagon's sacred cows," Coburn wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner.

Paul and Coburn are not alone. Taking aim at programs tacked onto the defense spending bill, that are not requested by the Pentagon, Sen.-elect Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, echoed calls to cut waste.

"There is waste pretty much everywhere in the government, and that includes the Pentagon. Part of the problem is Congress voting on systems the Pentagon doesn't even want," Toomey said in a debate during his campaign.

"Congress has real serious spending problems, and it manifests itself in many ways. Certainly wasteful defense programs are occasionally in that list," Toomey said.

Sen.-elect Mark Kirk, R-Ilinois, also voiced support for cuts during his campaign.

"I back spending restraint across the board at the DOD, like no second engine for the F-35 Fighter, closing down joint forces command, across the board reductions," Kirk said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

But the congressman who will likely take charge of the House committee that oversees the Pentagon has no intention of seeing the defense budget shrink.

"Cutting defense spending amidst two wars, is a red line for me and should be a red line for all Americans. You do not need to be a policy expert to realize that investment is key to maintaining a robust defense," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-California -- currently the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee -- told an audience at the Foreign Policy Initiative on Monday.

In fact McKeon, who is likely to replace outgoing Missouri Democrat Ike Skelton as Armed Services chairman, is opposed to the slower growth that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates desires in an effort to reduce waste.

"The growth in the department's top line is insufficient to address the future capabilities required by our military. One percent real growth in the defense budget over the next five years is a net cut for investment and procurement accounts. A defense budget in decline portends an America in decline," McKeon said.

McKeon downplays the rift saying the freshman members are more focues on getting the lay of the land first.

"I think it will just take time to see where they really are on all the issues. Right now they're probably trying to learn each other's names and trying to find where they're going to live and what they're going to do with their families and hiring staff and getting an office," McKeon said Monday at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

Rep.-elect Vicky Hartzler, R-Missouri, is in just that predicament, not ready to take a stand on cuts.

"She will bring her practices as a businesswoman to the federal government, wanting to first get a look at the books before making any decisions on cuts or freezes to various departments," said Hartzler's representative.

But defense experts see a struggle between the two camps in the near future.

"The Tea Party movement is going to have more fights with the status quo Republican leadership than it will with the Democrats," said retired Col. Douglas Macgregor. "And what we're going to witness over the next two years is whether or not this political movement, which is quite powerful, will succeed in asserting itself and taking control of the Republican party."

Macgregor and Adams made their comments during a phone briefing Thursday where they released a letter sent to President Obama's deficit reduction commission, urging its members to cut the Pentagon's budget. Fourty-five others signed the letter.

The commission's co-chairmen released a report earlier this month that proposed $100 billion in defense spending cuts in 2015. The full panel will vote on the recommendations by Dec. 1, the date of the commission's last public meeting.

CNN's Larry Shaughnessy contributed to this report