WASHINGTON — Pro-defense lawmakers read progress on ending a three-day-old government shutdown as momentum towards a long-term Pentagon budget boost, but there’s still a ways to go.
Senate Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said Monday that Congress was “a step closer” to a bipartisan budget agreement. Because Democrats chafed at Republican criticism the shutdown was harming the military, they would be, “a little easier to talk to,” he said.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a senior appropriator, said Republicans and Democrats are “very close,” on the budget top-lines and “could have been done weeks ago, except for their deadlock over immigration reforms.
Sen. Mike Rounds, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, said the coming caps deal holds a substantial defense boost.
“We’re going to have that, it’s got to be upped,” said Rounds, R-S.D. “I’ve seen some numbers, and I was pleased with the numbers I saw, but they were only informational.”
Four months into fiscal 2018, the Defense Department and rest of government are awaiting spending numbers, ensnared by the impasse over extending protections for young immigrants. Monday’s deal on a short-term spending patch to Feb. 8 at least appears to have generated some inter-party goodwill.
“This is a win for bipartisanship,” tweeted the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Cybersecurity’s top Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson, of Florida. “For days, I’ve been working with a group of moderate senators to end the shutdown & get a commitment to take up other bills. As a result, there is now a path forward to help Dreamers, fund the military and provide disaster assistance to Florida.”
Lawmakers must continue making progress on a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as young children, dubbed “Dreamers” for a 2017 bill that would offer them a path to citizenship.
Marathon bipartisan dealmaking and cross-aisle discussions culminated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announcing Monday, “it would be my intention to take up legislation here in the Senate that would address DACA, border security, and related issues as well as disaster relief, defense funding, health care, and other important matters.”
The question of the day for Democrats is whether they trust McConnell. One Democrat, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, wouldn’t say. But she touted the “strong camaraderie of the Senate, which could be helpful with the long-term budget bill.”
Still, lawmakers seemed no closer Monday to a deal on immigration, which raises the specter of another shutdown in a few weeks time.
On the budget, lawmakers must reach a deal to ease statutory caps that will get at least 60 votes in the Senate. Senate Democrats have been insisting any defense increase be matched on the non-defense side.
It could take lawmakers as many as three weeks to write appropriations bills once they reach a deal. That means Congress will likely have to pass another spending patch on Feb. 8 to buy more time.
“I think the government should be reopened, but if this doesn’t address the underlying issue — spending caps — for this two-year period of time, what does Feb. 9 hold that [the last funding deadline] didn’t hold?” said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services seapower panel, ahead of Monday’s Senate vote.
Still, that opposition is not expected to be enough to derail a deal and keep government operations shut down.
In floor remarks, Schumer and other Democrats highlighted the damage CRs do to the military as they justified opposing the CR that would have averted the shutdown.
“I didn’t hear anything [from Democrats] about parity on the floor of the United States Senate during the shutdown, but I heard about their deep, deep concern for funding our military,” said Senate Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee chair Deb Fischer, R-Neb. “I hope they will follow through.”
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.