Congress Standoff on Spending Focuses This Time on Defense

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) talks to reporters after the weekly Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol May 19, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Members of Congress are raising the possibility of a U.S. government shutdown this year as a spending standoff focuses on a high-stakes target: the Defense Department policy bill, usually backed by large majorities.

Democrats are using the bill authorizing funds for military troop levels and equipment to argue for an agreement boosting U.S. spending on domestic programs above budget limits Congress enacted in 2011. Republicans say President Barack Obama has drawn a politically perilous line by threatening to veto the defense measure.

“At a time of grave threats to our nation, these Democrat leaders think it’s a good idea to hold brave servicemen and servicewomen hostage to partisan demands for more waste at the IRS and bigger congressional office budgets for themselves,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Wednesday on the Senate floor in Washington.

A two-year, bipartisan government spending agreement expires Sept. 30. At that point, automatic spending limits Congress enacted in 2011 would take effect -- equally affecting defense and non-defense programs -- unless lawmakers agree on a new plan.

Obama and congressional Democrats say the shrinking federal budget deficit means there’s room to spend. They oppose Republicans’ decision to use war funds to circumvent the 2011 limits on defense spending.

Possible Shutdown

Democrats say they will oppose the annual government spending bills unless funding is increased. They contend that Republicans’ refusal to negotiate on that issue is setting Congress on course for a possible shutdown later this year.

“It appears to me from what the Republicans are doing that we’re headed for another shutdown,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said Wednesday on the Senate floor. “Do they desire another closed government? I hope not. But it appears that’s where we are headed.”

The Senate this week is considering the House-passed defense authorization bill, H.R. 1735. Members voted 46-51 on Tuesday, mostly along party lines, to defeat a Democratic amendment that would bar using war funds to exceed limits on routine defense spending unless Congress also could exceed the caps for domestic programs.

Democrats in the past have proposed capping the war funds and using the savings to pay for non-defense programs such as Medicare payments to physicians.

‘Off-Budget Gimmick’

Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, has called the use of war-fighting funds an “off-budget gimmick.”

Though Democrats lost Tuesday’s vote, they showed that they may be able to block action at a later stage, when 60 votes may be needed to advance the defense bill. They also demonstrated they have more than enough support to sustain a presidential veto.

Because the military policy bill has broad backing among Republicans, Democrats are trying to use it as leverage to boost spending on domestic programs that Republicans are more eager to cut.

“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.”

Democrats may be wagering that the public would again blame Republicans for a fiscal crisis. After the 17-day partial government shutdown in October 2013 over Republicans’ demand to delay and defund Obamacare, Republicans’ support fell in public opinion polls.

IRS, EPA

Republicans counter that Democrats are painting themselves into a politically challenging corner by forcing another showdown over spending to protect agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency at the expense of members of the military.

The Obama administration has threatened a veto of the Senate version of the military policy measure, S. 1376, sponsored by Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

The president won’t support a budget that locks in the 2011 spending limits, “and he will not fix defense without fixing non-defense spending,” Obama’s budget office said in a June 2 statement.

McConnell’s Plan

Further complicating matters, another partisan dispute is brewing over McConnell’s plan to add a proposal designed to boost the nation’s cyberdefenses to the Pentagon policy bill. Democrats are calling for separate consideration of that measure.

In a show of support for the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the Senate voted 31-65 Wednesday against tabling an amendment that would extend the bank’s charter, which expires at the end of the month.

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

Democrats have said they will renew the fight then.

“Our big fight is going to be on the appropriations bill,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York, declining to say whether Democrats will be able to block the defense policy plan.

John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said it would be “political suicide” for Democrats to oppose the defense spending bill, which is scheduled for a committee vote Thursday.

“If they try to block the defense appropriations bill they’re committing political suicide. They just don’t know it yet,” Cornyn told reporters Wednesday at the Capitol. “They’re taking a hostage they can’t shoot.”

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