Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is setting up to make the case that Democrats are flip-flopping on national security.
With the debate time on the defense authorization bill set to expire late Wednesday, the Kentucky Republican indicated in opening the day's session that votes are likely to be rolled into Thursday. And as soon as the authorization is off the floor, it will be in order to consider his motion to limit debate to take up the Defense Department's appropriations measure.
The authorization easily overcame the filibuster hurdle Tuesday afternoon, 83-15.
"I would expect everyone who votes for the Defense authorization bill would also want to support moving to Defense appropriations," McConnell said. "Because I'm sure every Democratic colleague who just voted to make promises to our troops will want to help us actually fulfill those promises by voting for the defense appropriations bill too."
There's no reason to think the GOP strategy will result in peeling off the six Democratic votes needed to get to the magic number of 60, even as some Democrats have been touting funding for local priorities contained in the spending bill.
New Jersey Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, for example, highlighted a provision regarding F-16s based in Atlantic City.
"The inclusion of this funding in the Senate’s defense bill is a deserving victory for our U.S. Air National Guard — especially New Jersey’s courageous 177th Fighter Wing, who were immediately engaged in securing airspace over New York and Washington following the tragic events on 9/11," Booker said in a Wednesday statement. "Just as we have called on them to protect us, they are calling on us to provide them with the resources they need to effectively protect and defend our homeland. Today marks significant progress in meeting this vital need."
Another Democratic senator, Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, last week highlighted items in the defense spending measure that are key for his home state's defense sector, while expressing concern about the overall process.
"The appropriations process is a long one, and no bill can be considered in a vacuum. I support today's bill in large part because it matches the President's budget request and all that it will do for Connecticut, but I will remain opposed to appropriating money on the floor until the Senate addresses the draconian sequestration spending limits that hamper our ability to invest in America’s future," Murphy said in a statement after Appropriations Committee consideration.
And for Democrats, that's the crux of the problem. They're using leverage early in the process in a bid to avoid a September spending standoff that results in reduced funding levels for the domestic priorities they favor, even as some defense functions are held harmless through a bit of budget gimmickry.
"Having a secure nation ... takes more than bombs and bullets. Having a secure nation also is to make sure we have a good education system, we have a good transportation system, we have a good program to maintain research for health," Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday, referring to the National Institutes of Health.
President Barack Obama has already committed to vetoing spending bills that lock-in sequester cuts.
"We know what sequestration did to them once, and they're about to do it again if this little magic game the Republican leader is engineering goes on," Reid said. "They will be cut, just like everybody else, just not defense."
Republicans have been decrying the Democratic position as prioritizing less popular agencies such as the IRS and the EPA, and the campaign ads practically write themselves. But, Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said last week that while Democrats knew such attacks would be coming, they would much prefer to force the GOP to get to negotiations over spending levels in June instead of September.
"I've learned you can't build a political career in fear of the campaign ads," said Durbin, the ranking member on the subcommittee that crafted the Defense appropriations bill.
The comment from the Illinois Democrat came after being asked about the prospect of Democrats facing campaign attacks over the pre-announced move to filibuster taking up the defense spending bill. Durbin's opposite number in leadership, Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, thinks the Democrats are making a miscalculation.
"I think if they try to block the defense approps bill, they're committing political suicide, they just don't realize it yet," Cornyn told reporters.
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