WASHINGTON — An Election Day shake-up of the U.S. Senate panels that oversee Pentagon policy and budgeting is unlikely, but several other races and committee changes will affect the defense sector’s fate.
The Pentagon and industry likely will keep in place many of their closest Senate allies. That is because authorization and appropriations panels have become homes for members who support the issues over which particular committees have responsibility — and the defense panels are perhaps the best examples of this trend.
Among Senate Armed Services Committee members, only a handful are in competitive races or retiring.
Two Democratic incumbents, Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, are battling Republicans Rep. Todd Akin and John Raese, respectively. Polls show McCaskill with a slight lead and Manchin comfortably ahead for now.
Freshman Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) is in a close and sometimes testy fight with Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren. The five biggest U.S. defense contractors have donated more than $100,000 to Brown’s campaign, second only to their top congressional ally, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif).
A Brown loss would remove a key defense sector ally from the Senate; liberal Democrat Warren’s insertion into the upper chamber would hurt GOP efforts to block the kind of deficit-cutting plan that Democrats want and Republicans oppose.
Senators stepping down
Three Armed Services Committee members are retiring: Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.). The race to replace Akaka appears likely to remain in Democratic hands, with the Nebraska race likely to flip to a Republican-held seat.
The Virginia race is a close contest between former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, a key ally of President Barack Obama, and George Allen, a former Republican governor and senator.
The membership of the Senate Appropriations Committee likely will remain nearly the same in the next Congress. Nelson also sits on that panel, but no other member is leaving or in a competitive race.
Sources said whoever replaces the retirees on the Armed Services Committee will be pro-defense.
“For the most part, those people who would come onto Armed Services and Appropriations would mainly want to keep the money flowing [to the Pentagon],” said Christopher Preble, a senior analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank.
But other races could impact defense issues, most prominently efforts to avoid defense cuts that will kick in Jan. 2 unless lawmakers pass a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan.
One longtime Pentagon and defense sector ally, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the outgoing Republican whip, is retiring. Polls show the race to replace him is a dead heat between GOP Rep. Jeff Flake and Democratic challenger Richard Carmona. Given Raytheon’s large presence in the state, it is unlikely the eventual winner would favor big defense budget cuts.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) also is considered a defense sector ally, and is locked in a close battle with GOP Rep. Connie Mack.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a key Boeing ally who was a vocal proponent of that company’s successful bid to secure the $35 billion contract to build Air Force tanker planes, has opened a comfortable lead in polls for her re-election race and appears likely to win.
But a big change that could impact the Pentagon is the retirement of the Senate Budget Committee chairman, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D).
“My sense is the [Finance] and Budget committee folks will have a big say about all of this,” Preble said. “Frankly … the real competition is between defense and everything else. … So the big question will be: Are there going to be new people on these other committees that rise to positions of authority and are in a better position to force the issue?”
Conrad has long supported the kind of “balanced” deficit-paring strategy many Democrats favor: one that features some defense cuts, tax hikes on upper-income Americans and domestic entitlement program changes.
The race to replace him is a virtual tie, according to an average of multiple polls, but that new member would not have the kind of power to strike a grand bargain on the budget that Conrad would have possessed.
Some potential good news for Pentagon officials and defense executives is that the most senior Democrat on the Budget Committee after Conrad is Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a longtime Boeing ally, and the top Republican is Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who many observers doubt would favor big cuts to the Pentagon’s budget to help pay down the deficit.
Prospects for a deal
The ability of the upper chamber to pass either a massive deficit-reduction package or a deal that would delay the sequester cuts could depend on which party gains the most seats Nov. 6.
RealClearPolitics.com, an online organization that tracks congressional races, projects Democrats taking 45 Senate seats, with Republicans taking 43, and 12 seats up for grabs.
To kill a filibuster threat in the Senate, one party would have to have 60 votes. It appears doubtful either the Democrats or the Republicans will achieve that crucial number, and that makes achieving a so-called grand bargain even tougher.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, which would have a big say in any tax reforms included in a sweeping package, said in September that the lone path to passing a deficit-cutting package would be if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, becomes president.
Romney gained an edge in the polls after a strong performance in the first debate with Obama on Oct. 3 in Denver.
“A Romney win certainly paints a much different picture,” one senior congressional GOP source said. “In the long term, that clearly is the better choice for finding an appropriate response to this crisis.”
In response, several Democratic senators bristled at the notion Obama would be unable to negotiate with congressional Republicans and reach a deal.
“The Republicans don’t want to work with Obama, and they are willing to wait and see what happens on Election Day,” Preble said. “They think they can get a better deal — even in a lame-duck session, and especially if they know Romney would be coming into office on Jan. 20. I’m not ready to buy the notion that they won’t work with Obama at all.”