GOP STILL DIVIDED OVER PENTAGON CUTS…. Congressional Republicans insist that the deficit has reached a crisis stage, and threatens to destroy the American way of life. The problem, of course, is that they’re proving to be a little picky about how to address the problem.

Democrats have presented a wide variety of policy ideas — health care reform, cap and trade, the DREAM Act, Clinton-era tax rates for the wealthy — each of which would reduce the deficit. To paraphrase Meatloaf, Republicans replied, “We would do anything for deficit reduction, but we don’t do that.”

Dems have also pointed to the massive Pentagon budget as an area of potential savings, but this is proving to be problematic for Republicans, too.

To hear the Republican leadership tell it, the once-sacred Pentagon budget, protected by the party for generations, is suddenly on the table. But a closer look shows that even as Speaker John A. Boehner and Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, insist on the need for military cuts, divisions have opened among Republicans about whether, and how much, to chop Pentagon spending that comes to more than a half trillion dollars a year. […]

The discordant Republican voices on military spending have bred confusion on Capitol Hill, among military contractors and within the military itself, where no one is exactly sure what the members backed by the Tea Party will do. It also shows why taking on the military budget will be so hard, even though a widening deficit has led the president and the leaders of both parties to say this time they are serious.

For his part, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already outlined significant budget savings, and has argued repeatedly that defense spending is unsustainable at current levels. Democrats agree, as do, oddly enough, Tea Party types in the GOP base. Dick Armey, of all people, told the NYT, “A lot of people say if you cut defense, you’re demonstrating less than a full commitment to our nation’s security, and that’s baloney.”

But the process isn’t going well. Several leading Republican officials, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), insist that every penny of the Pentagon budget is sacrosanct, without exception, and argue that the Obama administration is too willing to cut spending (seriously). Newer GOP lawmakers with the backing of the Tea Party base support defense-related cuts, but aren’t offering any specifics, because they don’t know enough about the policy to point to details.

To my mind, this shouldn’t even be controversial. Defense spending will top $700 billion in the next fiscal year. For Republicans to insist that we cut spending, but deliberately ignore the largest discretionary portion of the budget, is absurd.

The United States now spends about as much on defense as every other country on the planet combined. With this in mind, it’s something of a litmus test: those who claim credibility on fiscal responsibility, but believe a bloated Pentagon budget is untouchable, shouldn’t even be part of the conversation.

It’s the first hurdle that has to be cleared for the rest of the fiscal discussion to even get underway.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.