WASHINGTON — US Senate Democrats voted down the 2017 Pentagon and Military Construction-Veterans Affairs spending bills on Tuesday for the third time, teeing up a stopgap funding resolution to avert a government shutdown.
Each bill needed 60 'yea' votes to proceed. For Pentagon appropriations, the near-party-line vote was 55-43, with two Democrats voting yea: Sens. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Joe Donnelly, of Indiana. For Military-Construction-Veterans Affairs appropriations, the vote was 52-46, with two Republicans voting nay: Sens. Mike Lee, of Utah, and James Lankford, of Oklahoma.
Congress has four weeks to pass a stop-gap spending measure, called a continuing resolution (CR), before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30 or the federal government will shut down. Lawmakers are signaling serious budget talks are unlikely until after a CR is approved. With a lengthy recess in October, a budget deal appears most likely during Congress' "lame duck" session after the Nov. 8 elections.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spoke on the Senate floor ahead of the vote, saying it was "hard to explain why, despite the array of terror attacks we've seen across the world, Senate Democrats decided to block a bill that would help keep the American people safer from threats like ISIL," a reference to the Islamic State.
Democratic leaders are seeking a budget deal on terms similar to last year's, which included parity between defense and non-defense spending in an omnibus package and no riders Democrats would consider "poison pills." Republicans have been publicly shaming Democrats for holding defense bills hostage to their non-defense priorities.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin, D-Md., said ahead of Tuesday's vote that would not be a tough one for Democrats. It was a pragmatic means to an end.
"My preference is for us to pass a full appropriation bill in the next three weeks, but it's not going to happen," he said, "so I accept the forecast being given by members of the [Senate] Appropriations Committee that the best way to get a budget done is to get a short-term CR until December and come back in the lame duck [session] and pass an omnibus bill or some of the actual appropriations bills. That's the best game plan, but no, I'm not satisfied by that."
Asked to explain the path ahead, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said the next step is a continuing resolution, "of some duration," to be debated in the House and Senate.
"It's unfortunate because the whole appropriations process, which fell apart last year and resulted in an omnibus nobody liked, we're now back to where we started, which is dealing with this piecemeal," Cornyn told a small group of reporters prior to the vote.
Some House conservatives, banking on the next president will be a Republican, are seeking a continuing resolution that extends into March, which Cornyn suggested he would prefer. However, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has insisted on a CR that ends in December.
Cornyn declined to speculate where Congress would end up, but said of Reid that mid-December, "seems to be where he's heading."
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he wants to pass the dozen annual spending bills by December to fund the government through 2017 — and suggested his unruly caucus was to blame for putting the GOP at a tactical disadvantage.
Republicans, he said, would have a conference on the topic this week.
"I never even like to do a CR, I like to do our appropriation process, but unfortunately there were some within the conference who wouldn't let us start when we wanted to start, so we see ourselves in a different position," McCarthy said. "Now you're up against a wall, even though appropriation has taken all 12 bills out of committee."