WASHINGTON — When the US Congress returns to Washington after Labor Day, its election year calendar permits it only four weeks to finish the 2017 defense spending and policy bills before the end of the fiscal year. Congress watchers are betting lawmakers will pass a stop-gap continuing resolution (CR) before Sept. 30 to avert a government shutdown and wait until after the election for long-term solutions.
Issue: The next budget deal
Background: Distrustful that the GOP would honor the 2015 budget deal, Democrats before the summer recess sank Republican attempts to pass stand-alone defense spending measures. Defense is expected to play a major role in any larger budget deal, but there is an $18 billion difference between what the Senate and administration want, and the House-approved plan. The House plan sticks to budget levels in the 2015 deal but raids the money from the wartime account to pay for unrequested base budget items, a gambit to force the next president to ask Congress for supplemental defense spending. Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., offered an amendment to the Senate National Defense Authorization Act to add $18 billion to the overseas contingency operations fund for troops, jets and ships, but it failed a procedural vote.
What to watch: With few incentives for lawmakers to reach a deal before the election reveals Congress' new status quo, lawmakers are expected to pass a CR before the next fiscal year starts. Gordon Adams, a former top defense official at the Office of Management and Budget and now a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, predicted the CR would ends in December at the latest, which leaves time to cut a deal before the 114th Congress exits for good. "I don't think the politics work to extend the CR into next year," Adams said.
Issue: 2017 National Defense Authorization Act
Background: Staff with the House and Senate Armed Services committees have spent the summer recess hashing out details of the bill, as the big four — SASC chairman McCain and ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., and House Armed Services Chair Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash. — prepare to rumble over major issues, to include the budget structure and potentially Goldwater-Nichols and acquisition reform among them.
What to watch: While authorizers usually set spending levels for appropriators, Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted lawmakers will have to agree to a top-line before the NDAA can be completely settled. "The one area of progress we might see is working out some of the differences between the House and Senate on the NDAA, but without a deal for the top-line budget, I don't think the NDAA will make it out of conference," Harrison said.
Heritage Foundation defense budget analyst Justin Johnson agreed with Harrison about the final bill. Yet Republicans could offer an NDAA in September — ahead of a budget deal — to bait the president's veto. It depends on whether Thornberry and McCain — who is running for reelection — see a political upside to fighting the president over defense funding.
Issue: State Department authorization bill
Background: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and ranking member Ben Cardin, D-Md., in April quarterbacked the committee's passage of a 2017 State Department authorization bill and the Senate's passage of the 2016 bill. Aware a State authorization bill has not been made law since 2002, committee staff have left out for now arguable provisions on foreign aid, security assistance and guidance for the department's email system. Lawmakers want to get back into the business of State Department oversight.
What to watch: Corker, as of this writing, still plans to pursue passage of the 2016 and 2017 authorization bills, but its unclear what venue he would choose. He and Cardin could introduce it on the Senate floor or attempt to add it to the possible CR, though GOP leadership would have to be willing to risk encumbering the must-pass CR. The idea is to pass these and pave the way for more ambitious bills later.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.