WASHINGTON — With their blockage of defense appropriations, Democrats are signaling that they are done with the process for passing individual appropriations bills and want to negotiate an omnibus.
Republicans at a press briefing Tuesday blasted Democratic obstruction on defense as a bad faith move against the troops and a losing position on the campaign trail. But Democrats at their briefing said Republicans are maneuvering to get military appropriations passed so they can punt on domestic spending.
Asked whether he was sensitive to Republican accusations, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., lit up.
"Am I sensitive? Let me tell you: They are so obvious that even me with one blind eye can see it pretty easy," Reid said. "All they want to do is they want to get defense appropriations bills passed and then walk away. And then all the other bills would be at their mercy."
Democrats are signaling they want terms similar to last year's bipartisan budget deal, which was supposed to cover 2017. One of the key players in last year's agreement, Senate Appropriations Ranking Member Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said her caucus is seeking parity between defense and nondefense spending, all appropriations bills "recognized" in an omnibus, and no "poison pill riders."
The fear, Mikulski said Tuesday, is that with defense bills in hand, Republicans will pass a stop-gap continuing resolution to fund all domestic spending at last year's levels.
To hear them tell it, whatever trust Democratic leaders had in their Republican counterparts evaporated during the House-Senate process of producing a House-Senate conference report on the Milcon-VA bill, which funds military construction and Veterans Affairs.
Democrats, who fought hard to include $1.1 billion to fight the Zika virus, ultimately withdrew support after House Republicans inserted riders targeting Planned Parenthood, promoting the Confederate flag and cutting veterans' funding by $500 million below the Senate bill.
"What happened in Milcon-VA really destroyed an excellent bipartisan atmosphere," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense. "We looked at that and said, 'If that is a picture of what we are going to face with appropriations bills, we're going to have to bargain the whole package.' "
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said this is the best deal Democrats will get.
"If we did what the Senate Democrats said they want to do, we get no action on that at all," McConnell said. "You'd strip the veterans out and the military construction out, send the Zika bill to the House that we know the House wouldn't pass and so we'd leave here having done neither."
On July 7, Democrats fought McConnell's motion to take defense appropriations to the Senate floor. McConnell lost in a 50-44 vote, which fell short of the 60 votes he needed.
On Tuesday, Durbin said Democrats now need President Obama to sit at the negotiating table, wielding a veto threat. "The last time we had the president sitting at the table, we had a two-year budget agreement," he said.
In the meantime, Republican leadership is publicly shaming Democrats over the stalled defense bill in hopes that it will hurt them at the polls. McConnell had Sen. Dan Sullivan, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Marine, speak at Tuesday's press briefing to blast Democrats.
"I think it's indefensible and hopefully they will see the light because I don't think any senator wants to go home and brag about filibustering supporting our troops with five funding five times in one year," said Sullivan, R-Alaska.
McConnell, too, hammered Democrats.
"They have succeeded now in disrupting the process, thereby guaranteeing once again we end up with some indeterminate way of finishing the funding in a way that balls up the process," McConnell said.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.