The Senate Appropriations Committee’s decision to release the four remaining fiscal 2018 spending bills last week — including a cap-busting defense measure — underscores the urgency to get a deal on the bigger picture.
If the Senate defense bill became law, arbitrary automatic cuts would take place in the middle of January, as Democratic Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois pointed out in a Nov. 21 statement.
“This is a step forward, though we remain deeply concerned about the process. So before anyone cheers the major new investments in our national defense, we should pause and recognize that the lack of a budget deal means that all of these new investments will be automatically cut by 13% beginning on January 15th,” the Democrats said.
Leahy and Durbin are the top Democrats on the full Appropriations Committee and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, respectively.
The Senate panel’s defense spending measure for fiscal 2018 would allocate $650.7 billion, according to a committee statement. That total would include three major categories: $581.3 billion for core Pentagon and intelligence programs, $64.9 billion for spending labeled as relating to overseas wars, and $4.5 billion in additional funds for missile defense programs.
The draft spending blueprint would allocate nearly $56 billion more than the committee had predicted in July, and it is nearly $70 billion above the subcommittee’s share of the total amount for defense-related programs allowed under current law.
The Senate panel’s base budget blueprint is even $15.4 billion above President Donald Trump’s request, which is about the level that budget negotiators are aiming for as they look to raise the spending caps.
To make the Senate panel’s proposed increase for defense and intelligence programs a reality, House, Senate and White House negotiators must first conclude a deal to revise upward the statutory budget caps.
They need to find a bipartisan way to increase both the cap on core defense spending and the separate limit on nondefense spending. If they don’t, any appropriations above the caps will be cut anyway in an across-the-board reduction known as sequestration.
Under a potential deal, the defense budget cap would jump to about $603 billion, the amount Trump requested. But Democrats said they would not accept that level unless nondefense funds saw a similar increase. Talks remain ongoing.
Discretionary government funding is scheduled to expire Dec. 8, meaning that in addition to work on a tax overhaul, lawmakers must act during the next two weeks to at least further extend current funding.
The Senate’s spending plan for defense includes $17.7 billion to buy goods and services, mostly weapons, that were not part of the president’s budget request but that generals and admirals had sought as unmet needs.
Within that total, the biggest monetary boosts to the president’s request includes an additional $1.4 billion to buy 19 ships instead of the 13 requested. Most of the unrequested ships are relatively small and inexpensive.
The lion’s share of the shipbuilding windfall is $1 billion set aside to start constructing a massive new amphibious ship out of Mississippi, home to Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran.
In addition, about $673 million in the bill would be set aside to repair the two Navy destroyers damaged when they collided with merchant ships in the Pacific last summer.
As for aircraft, the panel would add $1 billion to buy eight additional F-35 fighter jets that were not in the administration’s request, $739 million for 10 more F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters for the Navy than Trump asked for, and $800 million for eight MC-130J special operations planes that were not in the president’s request, plus several billion dollars more for 50 or so more helicopters than the White House formally requested.
The committee also plans to allocate $1.5 billion that the administration did not formally seek for a special fund to outfit National Guard and Reserve forces with equipment that will be determined later.
For missile defense programs, the bill would provide $9.3 billion, a total that includes $1.1 billion more than the president’s request for programs to combat North Korea’s ballistic missiles and another $703 million for Israeli antimissile programs — the latter nearly five times the administration’s request.
Appropriators would add $2.5 billion that was not requested for upgrading facilities across the Defense Department, and they would bankroll a 9,500-person increase in the required minimum number of total military troops, both active and reservist — a figure known as end strength.
While the president requested funds to support a 2.1 percent pay raise for those in uniform, the panel would up that to 2.4 percent.
Other bills unveiled
During Thanksgiving week, Senate appropriators also released the fiscal 2018 draft spending bills for Interior-Environment, Homeland Security and Financial Services..
Those measures would fund discretionary accounts for everything from the EPA to the Treasury Department and even the operation of the local government in Washington, D.C. Senate appropriators have now weighed in on or outlined all 12 spending bills
The Homeland Security spending bill would fund Trump’s priorities for immigration enforcement, including $1.6 billion the president requested to begin construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Funding for the wall will likely spark heated debate and could complicate plans for a final omnibus spending deal.
“Recent terrorist attacks within the United States demonstrate our need to be constantly vigilant against security threats. I hope this mark sets us on a course to provide the resources required by the Department of Homeland Security to protect the American people,” Cochran said in a statement about the Homeland Security measure.
While praising much of the Homeland Security bill, Montana Sen. Jon Tester panned the proposed spending on Trump’s border wall.
“Unfortunately, this bill funds a costly and ineffective border wall that is wasting taxpayers’ money and blocking a bipartisan debate on this important legislation. We can’t spend billions of dollars on a wall at the expense of our firefighters, airports, ports, transit hubs, and local communities,” Tester, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement. “We can secure our borders more effectively with better technology and more manpower without saddling our kids and grandkids with the debt a border wall will require.”
The proposed spending includes $13.5 billion for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“It fully funds the administration request for physical barriers in targeted, high-traffic areas along the southern border, while also continuing a requirement that the Department provide Congress with a comprehensive border security plan,” the Appropriations Committee’s majority said in a bill summary.