Policy

Full-Year CR Threatens Military Training, Hawks Say

Thornberry: “All but one deploying Army unit will cease training after July 15th”

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, participates in House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's media availability with the Chairman's Task Force on Counterterrorism and Homeland Security in the Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The U.S. armed forces will see training severely curtailed if the continuing resolution funding the federal government is extended for the rest of the fiscal year, a leading lawmaker warned Wednesday.

Texas Republican Mac Thornberry, chairman of House Armed Services, said at a press breakfast that he has asked the military services what the effect would be of a full-year CR. He said he had not heard from all of them but offered a few startling examples.

“All but one deploying Army unit will cease training after July 15th, and that includes units scheduled to deploy to Korea and Europe,” Thornberry said. “The Marine Corps will cease all flight operations in July and have to get rid of over 2,000 Marines. ... This is lives and death and real consequences.”

Thornberry was joined at the breakfast by Arizona Republican John McCain, chairman of Senate Armed Services, who said extending the CR for the full fiscal year would be “almost criminal.”

The comments signal a stepped-up campaign by defense hawks over the coming month to increase pressure on their colleagues to clear a new fiscal 2017 Pentagon spending bill. The hawks would like that measure to include a $30 billion supplemental, and then they’d like to see a fiscal 2018 spending package that is even higher than the one President Donald Trump has outlined.

“It’s three steps to get better,” Thornberry said.

Stumbling blocks ahead

The hawks’ wish list, however, faces significant obstacles.

The House passed earlier this month a $577.9 billion Defense spending bill for the current fiscal year that would replace the CR, which expires April 28.

But it’s unclear how or when nondefense spending measures will move. The only fiscal 2017 spending bill to be enacted is the one covering military construction and veterans programs.

Senate Democrats will fiercely resist passing the fiscal 2017 defense bill without nondefense bills included in the package. And if they are included, Democrats will push for what they consider to be adequate levels of nondefense funding.

Assuming lawmakers are able to agree on some kind of omnibus federal spending package for fiscal 2017, that doesn’t mean the risks to it are gone. The package could be a magnet for divisive policy riders from one or both parties. That would trigger partisan sniping that could threaten the spending bill’s chances of clearing.

All this must be sorted out in a legislative calendar jammed with issues such as a health care overhaul and a nominee for the Supreme Court, McCain said. Compounding the pressures, over the next month there are relatively few working days because of recesses.

McCain told reporters he has been talking with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “at length” about putting the defense bill to a vote soon on the Senate floor.

Many experts believe that, as a result of all these factors, another CR is more likely than not. Lawmakers may look to extend the CR for just a few short weeks, to give them time to negotiate and clear a final bill. But with less than half the fiscal year left, the temptation to just extend the CR for five more months will be great.

Thornberry said there are consequences if defense spending falls victim to political disagreements.

“That’s part of the reason the impacts I was talking about with the Marines and so forth are so stark,” he said.

Many Democrats would counter that there are also real-world ramifications to keeping nondefense programs on funding autopilot, without the ability to adjust to evolving priorities.

Supplemental in trouble

The $30 billion fiscal 2017 defense supplemental stands even less chance of clearing than the main Pentagon spending measure. That’s chiefly because $25 billion of the supplemental would be above the spending caps in law. Because the spending is not designated for emergency war needs, Washington would have to change the budget law and increase the caps by that amount.

Yet achieving the compromises needed to raise the caps by $25 billion is not something either party has been good at.

And because the CR expires April 28, the compromises would need to happen with warp speed.

Trump has said that $15 billion in proposed nondefense cuts in fiscal 2017 should clear a lot of the path to increasing defense. But he has not detailed a single penny of those cuts.

Then comes the next fiscal year’s request. Thornberry and McCain want $640 billion for national defense programs in the Pentagon and beyond in fiscal 2018. Trump says he’ll submit a defense budget in a couple of months that posits a $603 billion total.

But, once again, how to pay for it will be the rub. Trump has proposed offsetting the proposed $54 billion Pentagon raise above the budget caps in fiscal 2018 by cutting nondefense programs by that much, including at the State Department.

Yet even hawks like Thornberry and McCain oppose such reductions. The chairmen both used the phrase “not going to happen” at Wednesday’s press breakfast in reference to the fiscal 2018 offsets’ chances in Congress.

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