WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday passed a four-bill, $789.6 billion package that includes defense and military construction, and Veterans Affairs spending for 2018, almost entirely along party lines.
But the bill sets up a showdown in the Senate over its inclusion of $1.57 billion in border wall funding and because it tops defense budget caps by more than $63.5 billion. Democrats, whose votes are needed to pass such legislation in the Senate, signaled the provisions were non-starters.
“Dead on arrival,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and ranking member of the Senate Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, said of the bill’s chances in the Senate.
The inclusion of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, a signature campaign pledge of President Trump’s, seems designed to play to GOP conservatives, but House Democratic leaders urged their caucus to vote “no” over it. Indeed, the House passed the “security bus” 235-192, with only five Democrats joining the majority (and five Republicans voting with the minority).
Beyond Democratic opposition, House Republicans have been unable to reach agreement on federal spending for 2018. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has yet to advance a strategy for passing the eight remaining appropriations bills, or a budget resolution — a document that typically would have preceded appropriations bills.
For defense, the package that did pass includes $584.2 billion, with $73.9 billion for overseas contingency operations. That includes added ships, jets and $28.6 billion in flexible funding for emerging requirements.
The military construction/Veterans Affairs portion of the bill contains $88.8 billion in discretionary funding, which is $6 billion above the fiscal 2017 level, according to a bill summary. The bill includes a 2.4 percent pay increase for military service members
The package also contained spending for energy and water and the legislative branch.
“The primary constitutional duty of the Congress is to ensure the safety of the homeland and the American people. This legislation is carefully crafted to fulfill that duty – funding our critical military priorities, supporting our veterans, and making our borders more secure,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.
But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said that his caucus will not help Republicans get to the 60-vote threshold needed to bypass a filibuster in the upper chamber.
“To my Republican friends in the Senate, I’d say persuade your colleagues in the House to abandon this dangerous, irresponsible path they’ve put us on, which can only lead to a government shutdown,” Schumer said earlier this month.
House GOP leaders used a procedural maneuver to unilaterally add the wall funding without a standalone up-or-down vote on it, which in turn prevented what could have been a tough vote for some GOP lawmakers.
Senate Democrats will not allow such a move in the upper chamber, said Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
“They threw the wall in because they knew they couldn’t pass it — in a Republican-controlled House,” Leahy said. “Well, we’ll arrange for them to have a vote on it.”
Democrats in both chambers have also derided Republicans for exceeding defense spending caps prescribed in law by the 2011 Budget Control Act without a path to easing them.
The Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense proposal exceeds the caps by $1.8 billion, and there is no movement afoot there to package bills as the House has.
To lift or ease the caps would also require the support of Democrats, who have demanded defense increases be matched in the nondefense side of the budget. That, in turn, would cost support from GOP fiscal conservatives.
Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, an appropriator and the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, all but called the House bill meaningless without a strategy to ease budget caps.
“If the defense numbers exceeded the BCA, it would be an exercise in futility because, even if it passed, they would have to forfeit the extra money across the board, which would be chaotic for the Department of Defense,” Reed said. “They’re putting the cart way before the horse, and they should be talking now — in fact the White House should be leading the effort — about how we modify the BCA.”
If Congress and the White House don’t get on track for the sort of bipartisan budget deal found in recent years, Reed predicted a Congress would pass a continuing resolution to fund the federal government at 2017 levels.
As disruptive as a CR might be to the Pentagon, that might be a rosy prediction. In April, when lawmakers emerged from a similar impasse without funding for a border wall, Trump fired off a frustrated tweet hinting he might be open to vetoing such a deal the next time, even if it led to a government shutdown.
“[E]ither elect more Republican Senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%,” the post read. “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.