WASHINGTON — Lawmakers avoided a pre-Christmas government shutdown by passing a four-week budget extension on Thursday, again postponing negotiations on larger issues surrounding a full-year appropriations for the Department of Defense and other agencies.
The measure allows government operations to continue uninterrupted until Jan. 19, although still funded at fiscal 2017 levels. Along with preventing disruptions in military paychecks and potential furloughs for civilian workers, the measure also includes an extra $4.7 billion in supplemental military funds for missile defense and ship repairs.
It also includes an additional $2.1 billion in mandatory funding for the Veterans Choice program, to keep those community care operations solvent into next spring.
Lead GOP defense hawks voted for the measure in spite of their growing frustration with funding instability and an over-reliance on short-term budget deals they see as damaging to the military.
The spending plan passed by a 231-188 vote without significant support from House Democrats, who attacked Republican lawmakers for again failing to properly fund the government through a traditional appropriations process.
The Senate vote was similarly divided, although enough Democrats backed the measure to overcome procedural hurdles in that chamber. It passed by a 66-32 tally. President Donald Trump is expected to sign it into law.
Thursday’s vote was the third continuing resolution passed by Congress this year. In the last 15 months, federal operations have been working under temporary budget extensions for 10 of them.
“We should be discussing a full-year appropriations plan,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., on the House floor before Thursday’s vote. “We shouldn’t be funding the government week to week, month to month ...”
“This isn’t the way government is supposed to be run. People need certainty.”
Pentagon officials have railed against the practice for months, saying it limits their ability to start new programs or complete long-term spending strategies.
To get the bill to the House floor, GOP leaders had to navigate intra-party divisions, including initial opposition from a bloc of pro-defense Republicans who had sought to wed a full-year defense funding bill to a stopgap for the rest of government.
That proposal faced even stronger resistance from Democrats, who could have blocked consideration of the measure in the Senate because they want parity between the defense and non-defense budgets.
House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, voted in favor of the latest continuing resolution on Thursday, he said, to buy time for a budget deal. After this third CR, he acknowledged said his patience was wearing thin.
“I think we need a little time and space to get beyond the partisanship that we have been seeing. Even though there is broad consensus on what needs to be done with the military, there are people who still play games with it,” Thornberry said. “I still think we can get and will get a good [defense budget] cap deal in January.”
In recent days, sources said, Thornberry had a number of in-depth conversations with House Republican leaders and emerged convinced they understand the need for defense budget increases.
Both House Tactical AirLand Subcommittee Chair Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chair Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said they were disappointed the full-year defense funding was not included in the CR, but they trusted GOP leadership to deliver later, in bipartisan budget negotiations.
“[House Speaker Paul Ryan], has made a pretty strong commitment as to what his position is in those negotiations, so we were all able to support him in this continuing resolution,” Turner said.
“Leadership is in a strong position around full funding for defense. They are looking at what [Defense Secretary Jim] Mattis has asked for and seeing how we can deliver,” Turner said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., was not present for the vote but decried the result in a statement afterwards.
“As we wait another four weeks in hopes that congressional leaders negotiate a compromise, the military will work overtime to keep an already dire situation from getting worse,” he said. “Readiness will continue to decline. Service members will not receive scheduled training. Ship maintenance backlogs will grow.”
“In a time when more service members are dying in routine accidents than in combat, and our sailors are working 100-hour weeks, asking the military to wait another four weeks for adequate funding is unacceptable. And it is a dereliction of the first and foremost duty of Congress to provide for the common defense.”
The bill’s military funding includes $4 billion for missile defense, with $200 million for the construction of a missile field in Alaska. It also includes $673.5 million to repair collision damage to the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald, both involved in fatal accidents at seas earlier this summer.
The extra funding for VA Choice is the second cash infusion for the program this year, following a $2.1 billion boost in August. The program allows veterans to seek care from private-sector doctors at taxpayers expense, and was originally slated to expire last summer.
But lawmakers for months have been working on a permanent replacement for the program, and had hoped to pass an overhaul of VA community care programs by the end of the year. With those plans stalled for now, the extra money was again given by lawmakers to prevent veterans who currently rely on the program from seeing disruptions in their medical care.
Congress is on holiday recess until Jan. 3. When they return, they’ll have just 16 days before the next budget deadline and potential government shutdown threat.
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.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.