WASHINGTON — The US Congress overwhelmingly passed, and President Obama signed, the $1.15 trillion omnibus spending measure that contained $572.7 billion for defense in a succession of votes in the House and Senate on Friday.
The appropriations bill passed easily in the House, 316-113, and 65-33 in the Senate, capping months of negotiations between congressional leaders from both parties and the White House, and drama over a possible federal government shutdown. More importantly for defense, it advanced a two-year budget deal that provides stability and predictability — instead of limited funding under continuing resolutions (CR).
“Getting the appropriations bill is huge, just having to live under a CR and all the uncertainty that comes with that,” House Armed Services ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said. “Of two years, this is one year, so we're going to have more work to do further down the line.”
The new House speaker, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — who inherited the budget deal and an unruly caucus from his predecessor John Boehner just weeks ago — corralled 150 Republicans votes, and netted 166 Democratic votes to pass the bill.
In negotiations, Democrats were able to peel away contentious budget riders favored by Republicans, including provisions targeting abortion and campaign finance. GOP negotiators were able to win a $622 billion tax package that they wanted and end the 40-year crude oil export ban in exchange for clean-energy concessions.
Republicans, though they have majorities in both houses, handed Democrats a victory in the form of the omnibus through their disunity, said Mackenzie Eaglen, an American Enterprise Institute analyst and former congressional defense aide.
“It's pretty clear it's a mostly Democratic win — like all the omnibus spending bills since Republicans have held the majority in one or both chambers,” Eaglen said. “That's because the hard-liners in the GOP will never get all they want in these bills with fewer than 60 votes in the Senate, period. These bills always require a majority of the Democratic party to help pass it, therefore it is a bill they genuinely like.”
Though a majority of the 246 House Republicans backed the measure, a small group of Republicans who voted "no" highlight a split within the party between defense hawks and fiscal hawks. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a member of the upstart Freedom Caucus, said fully funding defense was not reason enough to get his vote and expressed dismay with Obama’s counter-Islamic State strategy .
“This deal will increase the deficit by billions of dollars, and this should concern anyone concerned about too much spending,” Huelskamp said. “Just because you spend a dollar doesn’t mean it’s going to a good end. There’s plenty of waste in the [Department of Defense]. There are some people who don’t see any waste over there and I’m not one of them.”
In the Senate, Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., was a notable “nay” because appropriators overrode a Russian rocket engine ban his committee included in the 2016 defense policy bill — and because of the bill’s “wasteful, unnecessary and inappropriate pork-barrel projects.”
“At a time of war and cuts to our national defense, this 2,000-page bill negotiated in secret includes over $2 billion in defense funding for duplicative medical research, the vast majority of which has nothing to do with the mission of the US military or Department of Defense,” McCain said.
United Launch Alliance — a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin — relies on Russian RD-180 rocket engines to power its Atlas V rocket and recently dropped out of the Air Force's GPS III Launch Services competition after the Pentagon refused to give the company some relief from the fiscal 2015 defense budget's ban on use of RD-180s for military satellite launches after 2019. But the new language sets the stage for ULA to re-enter the competition.
“And as Russia occupies Crimea, destabilizes Ukraine, menaces our NATO allies and bombs US-backed forces in Syria, the omnibus includes a provision allowing a single US company to spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying Russian-made rocket engines from [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and his cronies,” McCain said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said the omnibus was “critical” to defense for its support of ongoing operations and acquisition programs essential to the future of the military. Yet the specter of budget caps and sequestration established by the 2011 Budget Control Act still looms large.
“It creates stability for this year and next year,” Reed said of the bill's passage. “Until we finally repeal the Budget Control Act, they’ll always be looking down the road and seeing that problem.”
Another notable “no” on the Senate Armed Services Committee was Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, who is running for the Republican nomination to be president. He objected to the omnibus for failing to dismantle Obama's health care law, failing to stop Syrian refugees from entering the US and a provision increasing the number of visas for agricultural workers, among other qualms.
"Typically in the Senate you have two votes — you can vote either 'yes' or 'no.' On this particular matter, my vote I intend to be 'hell no,' " Cruz told The John Fredericks Show. "This is what's wrong with the Washington cartel."
Nevertheless, the vote had an air of inevitability after Congress passed a stopgap continuing resolution days earlier to fund the government through Dec. 22 — disrupted only by a comment Thursday from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that she was unsure whether Democrats would provide enough yes votes.
For defense budget watchers, much of the drama ended with the bipartisan budget deal’s announcement, which established top lines for the defense and nondefense sides of the federal budget.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said before the vote that recent weeks of negotiations were focused on the policy riders, and not on money. The ranking member of the House Appropriation’s Committee’s defense subcommittee, Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., “never talked to me about any real problems,” Hoyer said
“The money was not in a big issue in this, which is not to say it wasn’t an issue … and certainly it wasn’t defense,” Hoyer said. “They got their [request], as far as I know.”