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Pentagon Still Faces Possible CR, Even Government Shutdown

Congress may be moving faster than usual this year on spending bills, but no one should be celebrating yet

Aerial view of the Pentagon building photographed on Sept. 24, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Aerial view of the Pentagon building photographed on Sept. 24, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Defense Department stands a 50-50 chance of operating under the constraints of a continuing resolution for at least the first couple months of fiscal 2019 and quite possibly beyond, a number of Washington insiders predict.

What’s more, analysts and lobbyists say, one or more government shutdowns are not out of the question.

If the Pentagon had to operate under a continuing resolution, it would be the tenth year in a row that the department’s operations would be hamstrung for some or all of the fiscal year. The military brass has vocally opposed CRs because they do not allow new programs to be launched and funding must stay at current levels.

Despite lawmakers’ unusual progress lately in passing appropriations bills for fiscal 2019, which starts on Oct. 1, none of those funding measures has been finalized.

In just over a month, Congress will likely have to send President Donald Trump a CR for fiscal 2019 that will almost certainly cover multiple departments, such as Commerce, Homeland Security and State, whose funding bills neither chamber has even taken up.

That CR may also include the Pentagon, some say, mainly because of the lack of time on the congressional calendar in September to finish a House-Senate conference on Defense appropriations and then vote on it in both chambers.

The all-but-inevitable CR is likely to last until Thanksgiving or even Christmas, experts say, and another, even longer, CR may follow that one.

In fact, some analysts think the CR or CRs may not even become law, at least not right away, because Trump may shut the government down instead, despite his recent indications to the contrary. His point would be to insist that Congress send him money to build his long-sought wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

That’s a prospect that Democrats, in particular, are already warning against.

“I don’t think the president appreciates the damage that could be done if he shuts down the government over any issue, let alone the border wall,” Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, told reporters on Aug. 28.

Progress on Defense appropriations

The House has passed six of the 12 spending bills for fiscal 2019, and the Senate has approved nine of them.

As for the Pentagon bill, the House passed its version on June 28, while the Senate passed on Aug. 23 a measure combining its Defense money bill with its Labor-HHS-Education measure.

Even before the Senate passed its Defense bill, appropriations aides from both chambers had been working for many weeks to reconcile the Senate and House measures. The two bills have widely different dollar allocations for defense procurement and research, particularly for initiatives such as hypersonics, F-35 fighter jets and shipbuilding. The Senate, unlike the House, would cut billions in aid for foreign militaries.

The differences are hardly irreconcilable, and House and Senate negotiators contend they have made progress on the Pentagon measure.

“I can tell you that the Department of Defense side of this is prepared to move as soon as our friends in the House triumphantly return to Washington,” said Durbin, the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, on Aug. 28.

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership who also serves on Appropriations, was similarly optimistic about the Pentagon spending measure.

“I would hope we are able to get a final bill sometime in September,” Blunt told reporters that same day.

Some analysts agree that the Defense bill is likely to be cleared by the Oct. 1 deadline.

“I think there’s an excellent chance they will get a bill,” said Mark Cancian, a budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You’ve passed two big hurdles: you have a budget agreement, and you’ve passed both chambers.”

Twins in a race

Despite the optimism, critical issues in the defense conference are said to remain unresolved at the staff level. And once members get involved, especially just ahead of an election, new and unforeseen issues can arise.

What’s more, the Defense bill’s progress is not solely dependent on the resolution of defense issues. The Defense measure is all but certain to be cleared in tandem with the Labor-HHS-Education bill, aides and members say.

House and Senate negotiators have several major discrepancies to iron out as they finalize a Labor-HHS-Education measure. The House has not voted on the House Appropriations version of that bill.

Referring to the Defense bill, Durbin said, “We have a happy marriage now with the Health and Education appropriations bill and we don’t want to get too far ahead of the bride. We want to come down the aisle together.”

But if one of the partners is hobbled, it will slow both down.

The limited time between now and Oct. 1 is a factor increasing the odds of a CR for most of the government, including possibly the Pentagon.

There are just 11 legislative days in September. None of the appropriations bills has made it through conference, and several will not even start a conference.

Congress is eyeing votes in September, if all goes as planned, on three packages of appropriations conference reports. In addition to the Defense and Labor-HHS-Education measure, conferees are working on a second bundle of bills covering Energy-Water, Legislative Branch and Military Construction-VA and a third for Agriculture, Transportation-HUD and Financial Services and Interior-Environment bills.

But debating and voting on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court will devour much of the Senate’s floor time and energy in September. A farm bill conference report is also supposed to come up.

Shutdown threat

If a CR or even final spending bills are presented to the president, it is not clear he will sign them into law, though the Defense bill would be the hardest for him to veto because of GOP support for that measure.

Trump had said for months that he would prefer a government shutdown, even before the election, to enacting spending bills before receiving what he considers to be sufficient funding for the border wall.

But more recently, Trump has signaled he may back off that position as he has on other hard lines.

Nonetheless, few in Washington are willing to bet their homes that the unpredictable Trump will not go back to his insistence on shutting down the government over the border wall.

Stan Collender, a veteran observer of Washington budget battles, believes there is at least a 60 percent chance that Trump will shut the government down before the election.

Trump may calculate that going to the mat for the wall would highlight the crucial issue of immigration ahead of a pivotal election and demonstrate to his base and to Congress how tough he is.

Trump also knows that if Democrats do well in the November elections, possibly taking the House, the odds of securing border wall funding will vanish.

Plus, a shutdown could be a useful distraction at a time when Trump could use one, Collender says. Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign manager, who was convicted on Aug. 21 of financial fraud, will begin a second trial on Sept. 24 — about a week before the new fiscal year begins.

“What’s the downside for him in vetoing a CR over funding for the wall and looking adamant to his base on immigration?” said Collender. “He looks tough, and it may be his last chance to get the border wall.”

If Trump does not pull the trigger on a veto and a CR is instead enacted just before Oct. 1, it may be only the first such stopgap spending measure.

When Congress returns after the November election for the lame-duck session, both parties will be looking ahead to the next Congress, when Democrats’ hand is likely to be strengthened. Republicans may feel the need to try to lock in current spending levels with a CR that lasts for the remainder of fiscal 2019, though Democrats would resist that.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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