WASHINGTON — Senate Appropriations Committee Democrats and Republicans clashed last week over federal spending caps and shielding the Pentagon from more cuts, offering a preview of coming talks on a list of budgetary issues.
The panel approved a $594.2 billion fiscal 2014 Pentagon spending bill on Aug. 1 that exceeds spending caps in place for two years. But, after panning the bill’s size, nearly 10 Republicans protested the Democratic bill by voting against it — further solidifying doubts about Senate leaders’ ability to ensure floor votes on spending bills before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
The panel’s bill, approved 22-8, would give the Pentagon a $516.4 billion base budget and a $77.8 billion war-funding section. The base section’s topline aligns with the Obama administration’s request, while the Overseas Contingency Operations portion would be $8 billion smaller than the White House’s request.
The opening minutes of a full committee mark up of the legislation focused on a back-and-forth about the Democratic-controlled panel’s decision to push a bill that’s nearly $20 billion larger than national defense spending caps etched into law by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
“The defense bill alone would exceed the Budget Control Act caps for defense-related spending by nearly $19 billion,” committee ranking member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said.
“That’s not even counting the defense-related spending in the committee’s other bills, which comes to an additional $35.6 billion.” All told, the panel’s 2014 spending bills are $91 billion over defense and domestic spending limits, Shelby said.
Without a major fiscal deal that addresses the spending caps, another round of across-the-board cuts would be triggered. Instead, Shelby called for “deliberate [cuts] that reflect decisions by Congress about strategic priorities.”
Shelby and seven other Republicans voted against the defense bill, with several echoing the ranking member’s comments.
Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said the reason her defense and other appropriations bills peak those caps lies with the House and Senate Budget committees — particularly the lower chamber’s panel.
“We need a topline so we can get to the bottom line,” Mikulski said. “We have marked up our bills to a topline of $1.058 trillion, the level in the American Taxpayer Relief Act, which was approved by the Senate by a vote of 89-8.”
She noted the defense bill and others “assume that sequester will be replaced with a balanced solution of revenues and smart cuts.”
Mikulski criticized the House for, in legislation it has passed, building in “a moat around defense so that all $91 billion in cuts come out of domestic funding bills.”
President Obama on July 31, during a meeting with Senate Democrats, indicated he will not support placing such a “moat” around Pentagon spending when fiscal negotiations kick into full steam this fall, according to lawmakers who attended.
In a sign that rank-and-file lawmakers have moved little from ideological stances taken since 2010, Shelby called for “meaningful spending cuts in mandatory accounts,” meaning “entitlement reform.”
Democrats largely have opposed deep cuts to such programs; Republicans oppose more new revenues that Democrats want.
Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., acknowledged the differences between the House and Senate budgets is a problem.
“Everyone knows there’s going to have to be a compromise at some point,” Murray said during the mark up.
“We’re not going to solve this by kicking the can to someone else — it’s up to us,” she addede.
Sparks also flew during the session over a provision offered by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., then amended by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Udall’s measure would cut off funding for any US operation in Syria that violates the War Powers Act.
After several senators raised concerns, Feinstein inserted language specifically pointing to the US armed services and a military operation.
The measure passed via voice vote, with several, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., audibly voting no.
Graham argued against both the initial and the revised amendment, arguing it would trample on the president’s constitutional powers as commander in chief.
“To my Republican colleagues who suddenly support the War Powers Act, where were you during the Bush years?” Graham said.
The 1973 law requires presidents to secure congressional approval for military operations within 60 days, or withdraw forces within the next 30. Since it was passed in the wake of the Vietnam War, Congress largely has looked the other way when presidents from both political parties have launched military operations that stretched into a 61st day and beyond. ■