Despite Risks, Democrats Maintain Stand on Pentagon Spending

The minority party is betting that opposition to the defense bill won’t hurt it next November.

Democratic Reps. Steve Israel (center), Nita Lowey (left), Eliot Engel (right) and Republican Rep. Richard Hanna held a minute of silence at the House Triangle on Thursday for the 11 Israeli athletes who were killed during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
May 13, 2015, 4 p.m.

House Demo­crats are hold­ing to their pledge to op­pose Re­pub­lic­an budget “gim­micks”—even if that means tak­ing the polit­ic­al risk of vot­ing against Pentagon fund­ing.

On Wed­nes­day morn­ing, Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship came out in op­pos­i­tion to the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill slated to come up for votes in the House by the end of the week. At is­sue is the GOP’s use of a war-fund­ing ac­count to cir­cum­vent man­dated spend­ing caps—while leav­ing in place such lim­its for do­mest­ic ex­penses.

Demo­crats have long op­posed the use of the Over­seas Con­tin­gency Op­er­a­tions fund to up de­fense spend­ing—and they have op­posed se­quest­ra­tion-im­posed caps in gen­er­al—but those re­ser­va­tions did not pre­vent the an­nu­al au­thor­iz­a­tion bill from passing through the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee on a 60-2 vote.

Still, mem­bers quickly lined up to op­pose the bill after caucus lead­ers deemed it un­ac­cept­able. “I un­der­stand that find­ing a com­prom­ise to re­move the caps has been elu­sive, but that does not jus­ti­fy the use of gim­micks to pro­tect one part of the budget, and short­change oth­er por­tions that are vi­tally im­port­ant to the fu­ture of our coun­try,” Armed Ser­vices rank­ing mem­ber Adam Smith said in a state­ment.

For Smith and oth­er Demo­crats who fa­vor ro­bust de­fense spend­ing, op­pos­ing the de­fense bill doesn’t ap­pear to be as tox­ic as it once was. “This vote is ab­so­lutely ex­plain­able,” said Rep. Steve Is­rael, who chaired the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee for two cycles. “Re­pub­lic­ans are en­ga­ging in budget gim­micks that are bad for na­tion­al se­cur­ity, and as long as you can ex­plain it to your voters, you’ll be fine.”

Rep. Ger­ald Con­nolly, who is un­de­cided on the bill, agreed with that sen­ti­ment. “In my dis­trict, there’s a very edu­cated, dis­cern­ing, well-in­formed elect­or­ate,” he said of his North­ern Vir­gin­ia dis­trict, packed with mem­bers of the mil­it­ary and de­fense con­tract­ors. “They know all about se­quest­ra­tion.”

House Demo­crats’ num­bers have been thinned by sev­er­al tough cam­paign cycles, and many of their most vul­ner­able mem­bers have already lost their seats. Still, some ac­know­ledged that op­pos­ing the de­fense bill could put mem­bers in a tough spot. “I would hope and ex­pect that people with bases and sig­ni­fic­ant weapons sys­tems in their dis­tricts are still go­ing to be yes,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, who chairs the mod­er­ate Blue Dog Co­ali­tion. While he plans to vote no, he said that “people who have big de­fense in their dis­trict should prob­ably be really care­ful about that.”

Budget Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Chris Van Hol­len said in an in­ter­view earli­er this month that voters are more than ready for Demo­crats to take a stand. “I think the pub­lic’s very aware of the fact that the Re­pub­lic­ans are play­ing this game with their budget and try­ing to in­crease de­fense spend­ing at the ex­pense of im­port­ant in­vest­ments in our eco­nomy,” Van Hol­len said. “The OCO slush fund is a re­cipe for budget crisis.”

Con­nolly ad­ded that voters are hop­ing to see se­quest­ra­tion rolled back, and back­ing the de­fense bill would be “tan­tamount to say­ing that we have aban­doned any real­ist­ic ef­fort to make res­tor­a­tions on the do­mest­ic side.”

The fact that Re­pub­lic­ans likely have the votes on their own side to pass the bill also makes it easi­er for Demo­crats to take a stand in op­pos­i­tion.

“Are there times you have to weigh the con­sequences of the vote as you’re weigh­ing the mer­its of the case at hand?” Con­nolly asked, not­ing that even if the de­fense bill fails, there are still op­por­tun­it­ies to find a solu­tion. “Yes, there are con­sequences, but you can go back to the draw­ing board and cor­rect some prob­lems here, or you can provide some re­lief on the ci­vil­ian side.”

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