WASHINGTON — The House's 2017 defense appropriations bill appears headed for smooth sailing after House GOP leaders barred debate on the main threat to the bill's passage, an anti-LGBT discrimination amendment that Democrats wanted and many Republicans did not.
First the House Rules Committee on Tuesday rejected the amendment, a measure to bar federal contractors from discriminating against gay people in hiring. Then on Wednesday, Democrats failed to overcome the Republican majority and lost a vote on the rule, along strict party lines, 240-185.
The vote was a win for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who had pledged an "open rules" process to appease House Freedom Caucus hardliners who railed against rules that excluded rank-and-file members from amending bills on the floor. But after the anti-discrimination amendment threatened to upend the appropriations process, members of the Freedom Caucus on Wednesday were willing to go along with Ryan's "structured rule" — save for Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who voted with Democrats.
Yet the outlook for the must-pass bill looks strong in the House because, while it uses a controversial funding mechanism, that approach was approved by the House when it passed the annual authorization bill last month. The spending bill includes $517.1 billion in discretionary funding for DoD's base budget needs, which is $3 billion above the fiscal 2016 enacted spending level and $587 million below President Barack Obama's request.
What has angered Democrats is that it shifts $16 billion toward base budget needs from the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account. This matches the approach of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which also shifted OCO for base requirements and only authorized the war budget through April 30, 2017, a gambit to force the next presidential administration to submit a supplemental request to Congress.
"Barring something dramatic or unforeseen, at this point, I think it's pretty likely the appropriations bill will move smoothly through the House," Johnson said. "You could see the usual suspects on the Republican side vote against it over the funding piece, but even there I don't think it's going to be significant. The House passed a bill with the same funding structure, so it's nothing new."
If anything, the conference fight between House and Senate lawmakers over their differing funding approaches is what's looming, Johnson said. If that becomes entangled in questions of raising domestic spending, that raises the likelihood of delays past the end of the fiscal year in September, then a stopgap spending resolution and ultimately a bipartisan budget deal after the November elections.
"A lot of these differences won't be resolved any time soon," Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders on Wednesday signaled their continued opposition to the House's funding scheme, as the House Rules Committee's Ranking Member Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., accused the majority of "raiding" OCO.
"This budget gimmick makes it even more likely that the Department of Defense will run out of funding early next year, as we'll come to another stand-off over funding," Slaughter said. "This is robbing Peter to pay Paul, and it's not how any rational citizen would run a household budget, so why would the House majority endorse it?"
House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., in a House floor speech Tuesday argued the nation is facing global threats while the military is suffering under budget caps — and he fired back at criticism from the White House and Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
"The bill before you does not 'gamble,'" Freylinghuysen said. "It is highly responsible."
The House Rules Committee on Tuesday, under GOP leadership, approved 75 amendments out of 108 filed. Notably, it rejected a controversial anti-LGBT-discrimination amendment offered by a group of Democrats led by Rep. Sean Maloney, of New York. The amendment prohibits the use of funds from being used to contravene a presidential order pertaining to equal employment in Federal government contracting.
The Freedom Caucus' decision not to buck Ryan is "good sign that they're on the same page," Johnson said. "You could see a scenario where the Freedom Caucus would fight Paul Ryan and go in a different direction here. Publicly they aren't doing that, which seems to point toward agreement, or neutrality, if not outright support."
Democrats were unable to overcome the rule, but Republicans allowed them debate on several controversial amendments.
Two bipartisan amendments press for a new Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF). One from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., with HASC member Walter Jones, R-N.C., would bar funding for the 2001 Aauthorization for the , starting April 30, 2017. An amendment from Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., with Jones, Lee and others, would bar funds funds from being spent in Iraq or Syria without a new AUMF.
"My amendment would force Congress to do their job by sunsetting this blank check. It also provides ample time for Congress to draft and debate an updated AUMF," Lee said in a statement. "Our brave men and women in uniform deserve a Congress with the courage to debate the cost and consequences of the war which they are being asked to fight."
There are also several amendments focused on major weapons program, including one from Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., to appropriate $80 million towards replacing the UH-1N Huey helicopter used to protect missile fields. With Freylinghuysen's support, the motion passed.
The House is expected to debate several amendments focused on the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Republican amendments bar the transfer of detainees, efforts to find a US alternative and defund both the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Detention Closure and the director for detainee policy.