The top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee said Tuesday he wants more funding for defense next year than the Armed Services Committee recommended last month, a glimpse at how the debate about fiscal 2022 spending levels could play out over the coming weeks.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama told reporters that the Armed Services Committee’s version of the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill was “a strong statement” but added: “We would like more money.”
That draft of the National Defense Authorization Act already would give a mammoth boost to the defense budget, with $777.9 billion for U.S. defense programs, mainly at the Pentagon. That is $25 billion more than President Joe Biden proposed for national defense and $37 billion more than the fiscal 2021 level.
That level would represent a 5 percent increase, more than Biden’s proposed 1.7 percent increase.
Shelby’s comments show how the Armed Services Committee’s overwhelming and bipartisan support for that bigger increase to the defense budget might have raised the floor for defense spending in behind-the-scenes negotiations — and Republicans certainly see it that way.
The bigger increase got some backing Tuesday from Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, who told reporters he is open to considering a 5 percent raise for defense spending over fiscal 2021.
“I will tell you that if it's spent correctly, it's not a bad move,” the Montana Democrat said.
But Tester also said he would need to more closely review that spending level because “it’s a fair amount of cash.” Tester said his panel hopes to mark up the defense money measure in the middle of September.
Tester’s openness to a bigger defense budget boost puts him at odds with not only the White House but also House Democratic appropriators.
Not all Democrats in the broader caucus are as hawkish as those on the Senate Armed Services Committee, often called SASC. Some Democrats can be expected to push back strongly against even a 5 percent hike in defense spending, let alone the larger one that Shelby and others are eyeing.
Some analysts believe Congress will appropriate the 5 percent defense spending boost, but only after a major partisan fight that will not be settled until late 2021 at the earliest.
Going above the 5 percent increase, as Shelby wants, will prove a much taller order, said Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army three-star general who is now a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“While I think the Pentagon needs the additional funding, it will be hard for Congress to surpass the SASC-approved level, given how the House is home to many of the more progressive members of Congress,” Spoehr said. “A lot of this is going to revolve on the greater context of the American Jobs Act, the infrastructure bill, and how all those bills fare.”
A redefined conversation
Last month, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 25-1 behind closed doors to adopt an amendment that would endorse the 5 percent boost to defense spending.
That lopsided vote demonstrated the typical GOP backing for a higher defense budget, as well as strong support for it from centrist Democrats.
The committee approved the $777.9 billion in fiscal 2022 for defense programs at the Pentagon, the Energy Department and beyond. Of that, $9.9 billion would be authorized in the Senate by committees other than Armed Services.
The defense funds still must be provided in appropriations bills written by the Defense, Military Construction-VA, and Energy and Water Development panels.
The House Appropriations Committee has advanced that chamber’s versions of those measures. The Senate Appropriations Committee is marking up the Military Construction-VA and Energy-Water bills this week, while an official schedule for the Defense bill has yet to be announced.
House balancing act
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s vote “redefines the conversation” on the fiscal 2022 budget, Spoehr said.
“The 25-1 vote sends a strong message of bipartisan support for more defense spending than the administration requested,” Spoehr said. "It suggests that all the news regarding how China is massively expanding its Navy and military is breaking through."
But many Democrats who do not serve on the Armed Services panels are expected to resist the 5 percent increase outlined by Senate authorizers.
Betty McCollum, D-Minn., the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee chair, said last week she continues to support her panel’s bill, which mirrors the amount of spending Biden proposed. McCollum wants less for defense than Democratic hawks in the Senate prefer but more than many of her more liberal colleagues want.
For the House to pass the appropriations bills that fund defense programs, it will have to accomplish a balancing act. Many House liberals are not happy with Biden’s 1.7 percent proposed increase, let alone any legislation that would push it to 5 percent or higher.
But conservatives are fervent about trying to get to at least that 5 percent figure and are threatening to scuttle the spending measures if they do not reflect that.
“It’s hard to imagine the House going even as high as the SASC mark, given the reluctance of the progressive caucus to fund defense,” said Mark Cancian, who formerly oversaw defense programs at the Office of Management and Budget.
“The Senate might focus instead on a one-time increase outside the normal process, perhaps a slug of money in the infrastructure bills to buy down the large military construction backlog,” Cancian, now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “The Senate might also try to get the administration’s assurance to sustain a higher defense budget over the five-year planning horizon.”
‘Parity’ not in cards
Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee have been tight-lipped about their views on ensuring equality of spending in fiscal 2022 between defense and nondefense programs, often referred to as "parity."
The Senate has weighed in already to show it does not support such legislation. The chamber voted 44-53 in May to defeat an amendment that would have required such parity. All Democrats voted "no," along with three Republicans: Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.