WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers welcomed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ visit to weekly party lunches on Capitol Hill Tuesday to talk up defense spending and criticize unstable budgeting — but it’s unclear he moved the needle in favor of Pentagon spending.
The visit comes as lawmakers and the White House grind through negotiations nearly four months into fiscal 2018 without a budget. The latest stopgap funding bill runs out Jan. 19, and another would likely be needed — either to buy time for more talks if there is no deal or draft the details of a massive omnibus spending bill if there is a deal.
A key sticking point concerns defense spending. Republican leaders are pressing to raise statutory budget caps higher for the defense budget while Democrats are demanding a dollar-for-dollar increase on the non-defense side.
“We greatly respect him,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said of Mattis in a brief hallway interview after the lunches. “Everyone in our caucus knows defense is important. We made the argument, ‘So are non-defense things, help us get those.’”
Mattis spoke at the Senate’s weekly Republican caucus lunch at the Capitol before leaving to address Senate Democrats’ lunch meeting. During the visit, some lawmakers were at a White House meeting with President Donald Trump to resolve another major issue stymying budget talks: immigration.
The lunches are closed to the press, but lawmakers said afterward that Mattis was well received in both rooms as he discussed the global security landscape and lamented both declining military readiness and budget unpredictability.
“The issue of the day is what will we do funding the government, and he, like most members of the Defense Department and most members of Congress, realizes it’s ridiculous and not the way to handle defense appropriations,” said Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Europe and Regional Security Cooperation Subcommittee.
“They need that certainty of long-term appropriations. We need to stop this madness,” Johnson said.
Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who opposed the former Marine four-star becoming defense secretary over civil-military balance concerns, complimented him Tuesday. She praised Mattis for telling Democrats he understands the need for investments in non-defense spending, while speaking plainly about the Pentagon’s needs.
“One of the most impressive things he said, that shows you how he thinks is, ‘I understand the Department of Defense’s job is to hold the peace for one more day so diplomats can do their work. You have to give me the resources to do that,’” said Duckworth, a combat-wounded Iraq war veteran. “He said he was talking to Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson several times a day, and that was very well-received.”
Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, a member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said Republicans and Democrats already agree the military needs more investment, but lawmakers still need to get a deal done on budget caps for it to happen.
“That takes negotiation and compromise; I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll get there,” Schatz said.
Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, a member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said Mattis made a compelling case for Congress to reach a bilateral, bicameral agreement with the White House — and avoid more stopgap funding bills.
“For him to highlight to us the challenges our country faces and may face emphasizes the necessity of not letting us slip into another [continuing resolution],” Moran said.
Mattis remains well regarded on both sides of the aisle, whether or not that substantially changes the conversation on Capitol Hill
“I hope every American loves Jim Mattis,” Johnson said. “He’s a patriot and we cannot be more fortunate to have him as secretary of defense.”
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.