WASHINGTON — The U.S. Congress is poised to pass the defense budget on time for the first time in a decade.
A bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers formally announced a deal Thursday for a $674 billion defense appropriations bill, packaged with funding for the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Labor and other government agencies, or Labor-HHS.
A joint conference committee finished reconciling the two chambers' bills, teeing up a compromise report to pass before the start of the fiscal year, Oct. 1. If successful, it would avert a partial government shutdown.
“The Defense and Labor-HHS bills account for the lion’s share of discretionary spending, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala. “Pairing these two bills was the lynchpin of our strategy to pass appropriations bills in the Senate. One, the top priority for Republicans; the other, the top priority for Democrats. Both important to all Americans.”
The bill contains a rescission of $3.8 billion in 2018 funds the Pentagon asked for last year but could not be spent.
But most details of the bill were not immediately released, such as how it reconciled competing visions for the JSTARS ground surveillance, command and control plane, and a divide on the number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The final bill is expected to be made public before the end of the week.
The House is scheduled to recess Thursday until Sept. 25, when it will have only four days in session to approve the package. The Senate will have next week and the week after.
A good sign for its passage of defense/Labor-HHS “minibus” is that conferees rebuffed controversial policy riders from both sides of the aisle, lawmakers said.
“I am also pleased that this bill is free of controversial poison pill riders,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “We did our job and focused on the task at hand, which is making responsible, thoughtful decisions about how to fund these federal agencies. This is how it should be done.”
The defense/Labor-HHS “minibus” is next in the queue after Congress’s first 2019 “minibus,” which includes money for next year’s Veterans Affairs and military construction funding, along with energy and water programs and the legislative branch. The bill also includes a boost for nuclear weapons funding.
For the rest of government, the defense/Labor-HHS conference report includes a continuing resolution through Dec. 7, to allow Congress to complete work on spending bills.
Leery after years of unstable budgeting, pro-defense lawmakers have pressured appropriators to work quickly so the military is fully funded before the end of the fiscal year. Congress has already completed its annual defense policy bill, named for the late Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, which President Donald Trump signed last month.
Signing a Pentagon spending bill into law before Oct. 1 is an achievement the U.S. government hasn’t managed since 2008, when President George W. Bush signed the 2009 defense spending bill on Sept. 30. The record through the Clinton and both Bush administrations is spotty.
Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, said the package fulfills the requests of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford for stable, timely funding.
“We can all be proud to say the cycle of continuing resolutions stops here and it stops today,” Granger said. “This agreement provides critically needed funding for readiness, equipment and research which allows Secretary Mattis to and the (service) chiefs to continue to rebuild our military and meet the diverse threats to our national security.”
Democrats expressed hope the Pentagon would use the stable funding with prudence and transparency. They pointed to the Defense Department’s first-ever department-wide audit, to be made public in two months.
“This bill contains a lot of money, just shy of $674 billion,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and vice chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. “Secretary Mattis will have his hands full making sure these funds are spent wisely and not wasted, but I trust him."
Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the president who signed the fiscal 2009 defense appropriations bill.
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.