Why the House Is Voting on Defense Funding a Third Time

Messaging and internal politics lead to another vote on increasing military spending

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, left, reached an agreement with defense hawks such as House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry to hold another vote on fiscal 2018 defense funding. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Speaker Paul D. Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, left, reached an agreement with defense hawks such as House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry to hold another vote on fiscal 2018 defense funding. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 30, 2018 at 5:02am

The House vote this week on a stand-alone defense appropriations measure to boost funding for the military serves two primary purposes for Republicans: messaging and peacekeeping.

While the chamber has already twice passed legislation to fund the Pentagon above the fiscal 2018 sequestration budget cap, Tuesday’s vote allows the GOP to continue emphasizing its support for national security.

It also ensures House Republican leaders fulfill the promise they made to defense hawks and conservatives to hold another defense spending vote in exchange for their support on the most recent continuing resolution. And perhaps it prevents some of those members from revolting against a future CR that will likely be needed to keep the government open past the current stopgap’s Feb. 8 cutoff.

The messaging measure is expected to pass the House on Tuesday just hours before President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address. Increasing military spending is expected to be a key theme of the speech, and the legislation fits neatly into such sentiment.

The vote also comes at a critical juncture in budget negotiations. Republican and Democratic leaders insist they’re close to an agreement on raising sequestration caps for defense and nondefense spending. Only then can appropriators wrap up fiscal 2018 spending.

Such a deal has been held up partly by immigration negotiations surrounding a legislative replacement for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects nearly 700,000 young people from deportation, and it is unlikely to be finalized until the DACA issue is resolved.

Watch: What You Won’t See On Camera at the State of the Union

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Negotiating leverage

Strong GOP support for the defense measure, especially if some Democrats back it too, could provide Republicans with pull in negotiating a higher defense spending number.

The measure would provide $584 billion in base funding for the Defense Department, and another $75 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funding, for all of fiscal 2018. That funding level is well above the $549 billion sequestration cap for defense, which includes appropriations to other defense-related agencies.

The bill does not include language to raise the defense cap, as was promised to the Freedom Caucus, but it eliminates the sequester for fiscal 2018, making a cap increase unnecessary. 

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said the provision is still in line with his discussions with leadership on the vote, which he said was generally about making sure defense spending was addressed without an agreement to raise the nondefense cap. 

Most Democrats are expected to oppose the bill, saying it is a GOP ploy to increase security spending at the expense of domestic priorities. 

Only two Democrats, Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, voted for a nearly identical bill the House passed in July, 232-192. But many Democrats want to boost defense funding.

“It’s actually one place where the two parties agree, but the Democrats want to keep that alive for leverage purposes, I presume, so we’ll see how it goes,” said Rep. Tom Cole, a senior appropriator and leadership ally. “I’m not overly optimistic, but I think it’s worth doing.”

Beyond creating a conundrum for Democrats, the vote will put pressure on the Senate, the Oklahoma Republican said.

Senate commitment 

While the Senate has ignored the past two defense funding measures the House sent over, it is expected to take this one up.

“My agreement is within four weeks of the time that it comes over,” Sen. Mike Rounds said, referring to a deal he struck with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in exchange for his support on the last CR.

“The leader has said we will call it up for a vote to start moving the appropriations process,” the South Dakota Republican said. “No guarantees of success, but we’re at least going to do it on the floor. And that’s what I want, to go back to a regular process.”

A McConnell spokesman referred Roll Call to recent public comments by the leader about ongoing negotiations on the budget caps.

Republican John Thune, South Dakota’s senior senator, said he was aware Rounds was negotiating with GOP leadership for a vote on the defense measure but he wasn’t sure what the time commitment was.

“I think there was an understanding among our defense hawks that we needed to get a vote on military spending and we can’t continue in this pattern of CRs,” he said.

The Senate agreement to take up the defense bill could have prodded House defense hawks to back the current CR. The Senate might need to follow through before any support for another stopgap materializes.

The Freedom Caucus began discussing the next CR during its Monday evening meeting, but did not take an official position because it lacked a quorum needed to do so.

“The general consensus is not to support another CR,” Meadows said based on the discussion among caucus members who attended the meeting.

“I think there’s a concern that we continue to agree to a strategy to do just another short-term CR and those strategies fail to materialize,” the North Carolina Republican said. Tuesday’s defense vote is “a step in the right direction but it’s only one part of a multifaceted approach,” he added. 

A spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee said he could not speculate on where members will be on Feb. 8.

Unlikely to pass Senate

Thune, the Senate Republican Conference chairman, said he has no expectation that the defense measure will pass the Senate.

“If past history is any indication, most of the defense appropriation bills have been filibustered by the Democrats,” he said. “But I think the bigger issue — obviously you know this stuff gets resolved once we have a caps deal. And so hopefully the caps deal comes along with and kind of hitches a ride on whatever the DACA agreement obviously is.”

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, a senior appropriator who was also only vaguely familiar with the agreement, had a similar prediction.

“I would think that probably wouldn’t pass by itself, but I don’t know,” the Alabama Republican said.

While acknowledging that the defense appropriations bill does not provide Democrats the “parity” they want, Sen. James M. Inhofe said he’s hopeful some might support it.

“Democrats and Republicans alike do want to have some way to respond to the problems that we’re having in the military,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “So that might just change the attitudes of some of the people. We’ll find out.”

Democrats want an agreement on increasing defense and nondefense spending at the same time, believing if they give Republicans the former, they’ll never get the latter.

Rounds said that’s not the case. He said he’d welcome a broader agreement, but absent that, Democrats should not continue to prevent Congress from funding the military at what he argues are appropriate levels.  

“They’re going to have to decide whether or not they’re going to recognize the need to take care of the issue here. And this is going to be a direct vote they’re going to have to be responsible for,” Rounds said.

“And so hopefully between now and then we resolve the issues. I’d hate to wait until the end of February to do it,” he added. “But … my thought was, if nothing else is working, this is one more opportunity to say, ‘If you’re really in support of the Department of Defense and trying to bring up the numbers, here’s going to be the chance to vote up or down.’”