Senate Defends Tactic to Sidestep Defense Spending Limits

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The U.S. Senate defended a tactic to sidestep budget caps for the Pentagon by swelling emergency war funding by $38 billion.

Senators voted 46-51 on Tuesday, defeating an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill by Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. It would have limited the use of the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is supposed to be for warfighting and doesn’t count against budget caps.

“It would be a disaster if this $38 billion were removed,” Senate John McCain, the Arizona Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee, said on the floor.

Reed has called the use of warfighting funds an “off-budget gimmick.” President Barack Obama’s advisers have threatened that he’ll veto the defense policy measure, H.R. 1735, and any other bills that use such tactics rather than easing budget caps for both domestic and defense programs.

Though they weren’t able to limit the warfighting funds on Tuesday, Democrats showed that they may have enough votes to block action at a later stage -- when 60 votes could be needed to cut off debate on the defense bill. They also showed they may have more than enough support to sustain an eventual veto.

OCO ‘Gimmick’

Obama and congressional Democrats oppose Republicans’ decision to use the Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, account to circumvent defense spending caps in the 2011 Budget Control Act, Public Law 112-25. They describe the extra war funding as a contrivance that would make it more difficult to strike a deal for higher caps on both domestic and military programs.

“Let’s put an end to the games and the gimmicks and start putting together a responsible budget,” said Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that limiting the type of funds that don’t count against the deficit “would do enormous damage to our ability to defend this country.”

“This is a risky strategy,” said Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who characterized Democrats as “holding this bill hostage for more domestic spending.”

McCain said last week that Democrats should fight over spending limits later, on the defense appropriations bill, rather than on the military policy bill he authored.

“The fact that this amendment got not a single vote from the other side is a harbinger of bad things to come,” New York Democrat Charles Schumer said after the vote.

“Our big fight is going to be on the appropriations bill,” he said.

Cybersecurity Add-On

The Senate is working to meet the leadership’s goal of completing action on the bill by the end of the week.

One of the amendments being prepared for floor action would attach a measure to shield companies from lawsuits when they voluntarily share information about hacking threats with each other and the government.

Privacy advocates and some lawmakers, such as Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, oppose that bill, S. 754, arguing that it wouldn’t provide adequate privacy protections.

For more on the cybersecurity legislation, see the BGOV Bill Summary. McCain’s military policy bill was introduced as S. 1376, and is to be added to the House-passed bill as a substitute amendment. This BGOV Bill Summary walks through the major provisions.

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