MANY Republicans boast that their nascent Capitol Hill majority is shepherding to completion former President Reagan's unfinished political agenda. But in one big area the resurgent GOP appears bound to differ with its erstwhile leader and perhaps not even fulfill its own ''Contract With America'' in funding the US military.
Mr. Reagan oversaw the country's largest peace-time military buildup; the Contract promises unspecified funding hikes to restore defense cuts made by the Clinton administration. But the floodtide of federal red ink that has been rising since the early 1980s and the GOP commitment to cut taxes while trying to balance the US budget leave little room for increasing military spending. In fact, the Republicans may not have enough leeway to even hold the line.
''We have a very strong Commitment to get the deficit under control and do it in a way that is credible and leave Social Security off the budget. So it seems to me that we're going to have to look at defense carefully,'' says Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, the fiscally cautious Senate Budget Committee chairman.
GOP big spenders
Of course, not every GOP lawmaker thinks defense should be subject to the knife. Defense hawks such as Rep. Floyd Spence (R) of South Carolina, chairman of the House National Security committee, want the military budget to increase -- in Mr. Spence's case, by between $90 billion and $127 billion over the next five years.
Spence says: ''The Contract With America calls for revitalizing defense and strengthening defense and missile defense systems. If we have signed up to this, we have to do these things.''
The idea of a five-year freeze in the defense budget, with annual adjustments for inflation, is being championed by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman. His plan would cost some $90 billion more than the $1.6 trillion President Clinton is committed to spending over the next five years. Says Senator Thurmond: ''You can cut just about everything else as long as you increase defense. The president has cut defense too much.''
Clinton's post-cold-war defense plan charts an estimated 10 percent reduction in spending over the next five years as US forces are scaled back from more than 2 million to 1.4 million. The reduction might have been greater except that excessive Pentagon programming and claims of US military readiness problems have compelled Clinton to seek an additional $25 billion for the plan. The Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accounting Office say that, even with this additional money, the plan will remain underfunded.
The administration is also asking Congress for $2.6 billion in emergency funds to cover unexpected fiscal 1995 expenses from US military missions in the Persian Gulf, Haiti, Rwanda, and elsewhere. Unless the funds are approved by March 31, warned Gen. John Shalikashvili, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, last week, military readiness will suffer, as the Pentagon will have to cancel flight training, troop exercises, and ship-maintenance operations.
House appropriators have in fact upped the ante on this emergency supplemental funding bill, adding $670 million to further beef up operations and maintenance. But many lawmakers believe that given the existing funding problems and the constraints imposed by its sweeping fiscal agenda, the GOP will be hard-pressed to avoid cutting military spending.
Senator Domenici indicated that among other items, his panel will target the Pentagon's so-called ''nondefense'' programs. These include anti-drug smuggling efforts, programs to safeguard former Soviet nuclear armaments, the Clinton administration program for converting defense industries to civilian production, and toxic-waste cleanups at defense installations and bases slated for closure.
''That's where we are going to get a lot of savings,'' Domenici says. He doesn't specify which programs will be canceled, scaled back, or transferred to other departments, where they would get significantly less money or be eliminated altogether. Cutting these programs, which now total some $11 billion, is fine with GOP ''defense hawks'' if the savings are returned to the Pentagon. But there is no guarantee they will be: The pressure on the Republicans to slash federal spending may be just too great.
Furthermore, the cuts in ''nondefense'' items would only be the tip of far deeper reductions that would be forced on the Pentagon if the proposed constitutional amendment for a balanced federal budget is approved by Congress and ratified by the states. Defense Secretary William Perry estimates that balancing the budget would compel defense spending cuts of up to $500 billion over seven years, forcing a massive reduction in US military strength.
GOP defense boosters also face opponents within their own party. They include Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, a budget committee member. Wedded to the balanced-budget amendment, he vows that he will join the panel's 10 minority Democrats in fighting any military budget hikes, creating an 11 to 11 deadlock.
''I've seen the numbers that require us to get there and they are pretty earth-shaking,'' Senator Grassley says of balancing the budget. ''There is simply no way of getting from here to there by increasing defense.''