Hawks have upper hand as Pentagon spending debate looms

Defense budget secures plenty of bipartisan support despite divide among Democrats

A soldier gets ready for a Navy and Marine Corps training exercise at Camp Lejeune in October 2017. (Fred Marie/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)
A soldier gets ready for a Navy and Marine Corps training exercise at Camp Lejeune in October 2017. (Fred Marie/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)
Posted September 24, 2021 at 2:10pm

Now that the House has passed the annual defense policy bill that would authorize $25 billion more than the Pentagon requested for the next fiscal year by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, appropriators must decide whether to match funding to the amounts authorized.

After a long series of votes on amendments, the House passed the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act by a 316-113 margin. Majorities of both Democrats (181-38) and Republicans (135-75) supported the bill, so the higher topline is not exactly on shaky ground.

The House bill would authorize $739.5 billion for the Defense Department, $24.7 billion more than the $714.8 billion the Biden administration requested. The higher figure is largely in line with the $740.1 topline from the Senate’s version, which was unveiled earlier this week.

Authorizing and appropriating

But it’s significantly more than the $716.9 billion topline approved by House appropriators when they marked up their funding bill in July. Asked then about the difference between the NDAA topline and appropriators’ lower total, Betty McCollum, D-Minn., chair of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said simply: “I support the number that I marked to.”

McCollum voted in favor of the NDAA on Thursday, as did Ken Calvert of California, the top Republican on the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

Progressive Democrats, including Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, failed in their effort to attach an amendment that would cut the Defense Department’s budget by 10 percent by a 86-332 margin. Another amendment that would limit the topline to the figure requested by the Pentagon, supported by Pocan, Ocasio-Cortez, Barbara Lee of California and freshman Armed Services member Sara Jacobs of California, was rejected by a 142-286 margin.

McCollum voted against the 10 percent cut but in favor of stripping out the $24.7 billion added by lawmakers during the Armed Services markup of the bill. Calvert voted against both amendments.

More wrangling ahead

The release of the Senate version signals that a floor vote isn’t far off, possibly within the coming weeks. The Senate Armed Services Committee sent it to the full chamber with a bipartisan 23-3 vote, which bodes well for its passage.

But even with the bills taking shape, it’s too soon to know what will make it into the final version. The conference committee that reconciles the two bills — and conducts its work behind closed doors — has been known to strip out provisions without offering much explanation.

“Analysts and planners should pay closer attention to appropriations than authorizations, but authorizations can signal intent,” Byron Callan, a defense analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, wrote in a note to investors.

The Senate Armed Services Committee marked up its bill in July, before the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan collapsed completely and the Taliban seized control of the country. The Senate bill still includes $3.3 billion in operations and maintenance funds for the Afghan Security Forces, which is now moot, Callan noted.

The two defense authorization bills are not very far apart in most key areas, particularly procurement. The Army would get $24.1 billion in the House bill, $400 million more than the Senate bill. The House version would authorize $67.8 billion for the Navy versus the Senate’s $64.9 billion, while Air Force fares slightly better in the Senate version ($50.6 billion) than the House ($49.4 billion).

Defense-wide totals for research, development, testing and evaluation are only $2 billion apart, $118.1 billion in the House bill and $116.1 billion in the Senate bill.