WASHINGTON — House Republicans are pushing ahead with plans for a defense-heavy funding bill that Senate Democrats have vowed to oppose, again raising prospects for a government shutdown, this time over the Christmas holiday.
Lawmakers have until Dec. 22 to pass a new budget deal or trigger a shutdown, which would result in shuttering of some federal offices, furloughs for some civilian employees and halted paychecks for most troops around the globe.
On Wednesday, appropriations lawmakers unveiled their latest legislation to avoid that and settle some of the unresolved budget issues for the current fiscal year, which began in October. The new measure would provide $640 billion for defense spending for fiscal 2018, another $2.1 billion to keep the Department of Veterans Affairs choice program operational through spring 2018, and money to extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program until 2019.
But it also only includes funding for federal non-defense programs for four more weeks, until Jan. 19. Lawmakers would return from their holiday recess (scheduled to start around Dec. 21) to another round of fighting over proper levels of spending for domestic programs and non-military priorities.
House leaders hailed it as a responsible step forward to solve at least a few of the fiscal problems facing Congress.
“Our troops and commanders must have the resources they need right now to advance peace and our nation’s interests abroad,” House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., said in a statement Wednesday. “This continuing resolution will fund national defense for the entire fiscal year and provide additional funds for missile defense.”
He said the budget fix is “not the preferred way to do the nation’s fiscal business” but added that it will “allow time for the leadership of the House and Senate and the White House to come to agreement on a topline spending level for this fiscal year.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he expects to bring the measure up for a vote next week, sending it to the Senate before lawmakers leave town.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said House Republicans shouldn’t bother.
“Every hour the House spends on (this measure) is an hour that we waste,” he said on the Senate floor Thursday. “If Speaker Ryan forces the House to go forward with the ‘cromnibus,’ it will fail in the Senate.”
Democrats have begun referring to the measure as the “Puntagon,” since it would pay for defense priorities but delay critical conversations on other federal spending.
The fight over military vs. non military spending dates back to 2010, when lawmakers approved spending caps on most federal departments in an effort to rein in the national deficit. Since then, Republicans have pushed for increases to defense spending while holding other programs flat, while Democrats have pushed for equal funding across the departments.
On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reiterated that lawmakers from her party won’t support moving ahead with military plus-ups on their own, since it will leave Republicans little reason to negotiate on the other issues.
“We are not opposed to the Pentagon getting what it needs to keep us strong,” she said. “But there are many national security functions within the domestic side, plus the domestic agenda.
(Republicans) need a serious plan for year-end, and we look forward to working with them in a bipartisan way. But what they’re doing right now won’t fly.”
Democrats don’t have enough seats in the House to block legislation favored by the Republican majority. But in the Senate, chamber rules give them the power to block the budget measure from a full floor vote.
Pentagon officials for months have been pleading with lawmakers to settle the budget fights, complaining that a series of short-term fixes disrupts program funding and prevents them from launching new initiatives.
A government shutdown could be even more disruptive.
In 2013, when the last partial government shutdown occurred, military operations overseas were given funding priority with office closings and program halts confined to bases far from the front lines. But daycare and commissary services were not deemed essential to department operations, forcing curtailed hours and closures at those facilities. Civilian workers deemed non-essential spent the shutdown at home without pay.
Troops paychecks continued in 2013, but only because of special legislation passed by lawmakers hours before the shutdown.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, called Democratic opposition to the defense-heavy budget measure a dangerous strategy.
“Opponents of this bill argue that we should put our urgent national security needs on hold until we reach a similar consensus on a whole host of other domestic programs,” he said in a statement. “That is the approach we have taken for the past six years and the results are indisputable: the number of our troops killed in training accidents is increasing, our military capabilities are eroding, our enemies have become emboldened, and America is less secure.
“To continue to use defense funding as a political football in the face of these undisputed consequences is irresponsible.”
But Democrats countered that Republicans are using the military for political purposes, abandoning the framework for a two-year plus-up in defense and non-defense spending in favor of a one-sided budget ploy.
Both sides are expected to continue work on the issue before votes early next week, when the countdown clock to the next shutdown threat shifts from days to hours.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.