WASHINGTON — What to do about spending caps is one issue House and Senate negotiators can skip as they craft a compromise 2016 federal budget blueprint.
That's because spending resolutions approved last week by the House and Senate both leave defense and domestic spending caps in place.
"We know now ever since 2011 we have been living with sequestration," Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said last week on the Senate floor. "While we have been dealing with sequestration, the world has turned into a place with enormous turmoil."
Many of McCain's colleagues, Republican and Democrat, agree.
Yet, both chambers' budget resolutions include the same amount for the Pentagon's base budget: $499 billion. That's the amount allowed under the 2011 Budget Control Act.
Both chambers approved more overseas contingency operations (OCO) funding — $96 billion by the House, $89 billion by the Senate — but defense hawks and Pentagon officials wanted extra base budget monies.
There was little chance of securing that, however, as GOP deficit hawks demanded keeping the defense and domestic caps in place.
As McCain noted during a March 26 appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), his House Republican "Freedom Caucus" colleagues have successfully made spending cuts and deficit reduction more important than many other issues on Capitol Hill.
The result is that even Republican leaders talk more about Washington "living within its means" by holding steady on spending than about giving more to the military.
"This budget will actually restrain spending without raising taxes, it will balance the budget, it will keep our priorities, but most importantly, it will allow our economy to flourish and grow," Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, said in a statement. "Because ultimately a growing economy is the best bet for a brighter future for all of us."
One prominent defense analysts said sequestration likely is here to stay until President Barack Obama leaves office in January 2017.
"It seems at this point, we'll need to wait for a new administration for a real fix," said Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. (CSBA). "There was a lot of hope with the new Republican Congress, they'd be able to break the logjam and find a solution. But now it's jammed up more than ever."
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last week lashed out against the House-passed resolution, saying it would "fail to solve the problem [of sequestration] while also undermining basic principles of accountability and long term planning."
He also criticized members for leaving in place the caps, noting the resolution also would fail to save the agencies that the Pentagon works with overseas — the State Department, Treasury and Homeland Security — from sequestration.
"I cannot and will not be indifferent to cuts threatening" those departments, Carter said.
If other agencies lose money in the 2016 budget season, "the risks will accrue to our troops" in the field just as if his own department's budget was cut, he said.
But Harrison suggested that even with the caps, things will not be that bad for the Defense Department.
"We're not going to see the previous problems. There aren't going to be furloughs and training cancellations," Harrison said. "The money in OCO is flexible. Yes, there are some restrictions. But if you have $35 billion more there, you can find ways to appropriate money for other things. It's a shell game."
That's exactly what the House GOP defense hawks, who secured a budget resolution that defied deficit-minded conservatives by not requiring the extra war funding to be offset with other federal cuts, intend to do.
"We're going to mark it. … We're going to change the way it's used," House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., told reporters last week. "It's OCO but it's not going to be OCO."
-- Leo Shane III and Paul McLeary contributed.