Defense Remains Key Sticking Point for Spending Deal

With time running out before a government shutdown, the two parties are no closer to agreeing on how or whether to boost the Pentagon budget.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
Dec. 4, 2017, 8 p.m.

For all the attention on the myriad issues Congress must tackle before the end of the year—from health care to immigration to disaster relief—defense spending quietly looms as one of the biggest hurdles to striking a budget deal.

After both chambers approved a bill that authorized a total of $700 billion—tens of billions of dollars above the current budget caps—for the military in the next fiscal year, lawmakers are still searching for a way to fund it and avoid across-the-board cuts. Defense hawks have staked out the position that they will not accept funding levels below that mark. Democrats are pushing for any increases in defense spending to be matched on the domestic side. And while fiscal conservatives support boosting defense spending levels, they oppose doing the same for nondefense.

With the Dec. 8 deadline quickly approaching, lawmakers are aiming to pass a two-week continuing resolution this week to keep the government funded as negotiations on a bigger deal continue.

In an interview on CSPAN’s Newsmakers program that aired over the weekend, Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, warned that there was a “very high” possibility of a government shutdown.

“We have made no progress in this debate,” Smith said. “Whatever the number is, we need to set that number because governing on a continuing resolution, particularly at the Defense Department, is difficult. It makes it much, much harder to implement any sort of sustainable national security policy.”

The National Defense Authorization Act for the 2018 fiscal year set the base budget for the Pentagon at $626 billion, $77 billion above the caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act and $23 billion above President Trump’s request earlier this year. The NDAA also sets aside $66 billion for overseas contingency operations and $8 billion for defense programs at other agencies.

The chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services committees, Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry, have said that Congress should provide the funding to match that $700 billion figure, and they do not believe defense spending increases should be tied to the nondefense budget. After the Senate approved the NDAA by voice vote and the House passed it 356-70, Thornberry said there should be an appetite for that level of military funding.

“If you look at the votes in the House and the Senate, that looks very positive that there is widespread agreement for that. But until it happens, you don’t know,” Thornberry told National Journal last week. “The thing I continue to worry about is people using defense as leverage for some other agenda.”

In reality, a $700 billion defense budget would be a tough sell even for Republicans in Congress, particularly after most of them supported a tax bill that is projected to add $1 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. More realistically, legislators will land on a defense number that falls somewhere between the White House’s initial proposal and the NDAA. For instance, the Senate Appropriations Committee released a defense bill that would set overall defense funding at $651 billion, while the House Appropriations Committee’s version set it at $658 billion.

To lift the budget caps on defense, though, Democrats want to see parity for nondefense spending. They have already turned down a GOP proposal to raise the spending limits for defense by $54 billion and nondefense by $37 billion. Republicans could pass a spending bill along party lines in the House, but they will need at least eight Democrats on board in the Senate.

“We need to reach a budget agreement that equally boosts funds for our military and key priorities here at home including the opioid crisis, pension plans, and rural infrastructure,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a joint statement Monday. The two are planning to meet with Trump and Republican leadership at the White House on Thursday.

Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum over the weekend, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said defense funding should not be dependent on the nondefense side.

“You should fund your military with what you need to accomplish to protect you from the threats,” McCarthy said. “That’s what you should decide the number upon.”

Another problem for the GOP, however, is that raising domestic spending levels could cost them support on the other end from their most conservative members. Rep. Jim Jordan, a former House Freedom Caucus chairman, said at a Heritage Foundation forum last week that the group was in favor of “breaking the caps on defense” but was “not there on the nondefense caps.”

“That’s not what we campaigned on,” Jordan said. “That’s not what the voters elected us to do.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a GOP defense hawk who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said last week that he was confident Congress could reach an agreement to raise the defense budget caps along with a smaller increase on the nondefense side. He also signaled that he was open to defense funding levels that were below the figures in the NDAA he supported.

“I just want to hear from the military what’s enough,” Graham said. “We need to get this right.”

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