WASHINGTON - 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 grassroots 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 new House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), has said defense programs could join others on the cutting board.
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.
Just about all Republicans, and plenty of Democrats, too, favor paring back spending. But when it comes to specific cuts - eliminating money for schools, parks, hospitals, highways and everything else - the decisions get difficult.
"Everything is ultimately on the table," said Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), a freshman and a tea party favorite. That view could produce a rough tenure for the former football player, who has earned a spot on the House Armed Services Committee, a fierce protector of military interests. The congressman's district is home to Fort Dix.
In an unusual political pairing, liberal Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a libertarian, have joined in pushing for substantial defense reductions, including closing some of the 600-plus military bases overseas.