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Leahy says GOP intransigence on spending threatens defense

The parties have largely agreed to raise defense spending but need an overall appropriations deal to cement it

Top appropriators, Leahy (left) and Shelby, have not agreed on overall spending levels, delaying an agreement on funding the government this fiscal year.
Top appropriators, Leahy (left) and Shelby, have not agreed on overall spending levels, delaying an agreement on funding the government this fiscal year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy called out Republicans on the Senate floor Thursday, accusing them of pushing Congress toward a full-year continuing resolution that would fund the government at levels set last year, thereby shortchanging one of the GOP’s stated priorities: national security.

The Vermont Democrat noted the broad bipartisan consensus in both chambers for a big increase in defense spending, with Armed Services committees in both chambers authorizing $25 billion more than the Biden administration asked for in their versions of the annual defense policy bill.

Leahy accused Republicans of refusing to take “yes for an answer” or even to negotiate on overall spending levels for defense and non-defense priorities.

“They seem intent on driving us toward a full-year continuing resolution,” Leahy said. “If I was a cynical person, I would be worried that delay was a political calculation to tie the hands of the Biden administration and thwart its agenda —governing under a long-term continuing resolution is difficult and they know it.”

Impasse would threaten defense increase

The Senate draft of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, approved by its Armed Services Committee in July, would authorize $767.8 billion for defense, while the House bill, which passed the chamber last month, would authorize $768.1 billion, a difference of only $300 million. The Biden administration requested $743.1 billion.

Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee released draft funding bills, which included $729 billion for the Defense Department, a 5 percent increase over the Pentagon’s budget request. Those figures do not include defense spending in other departments, such as $11 billion in military construction and family housing and about $30 billion for nuclear weapons within the Department of Energy’s budget.

“I personally thought [the administration’s figure] struck the right balance, as did many of my colleagues. But this institution is built on compromise,” Leahy said, noting that appropriators adjusted Biden’s defense budget to include a 5 percent increase over the fiscal 2021 level, a number designed to please Republican hawks. Appropriators also reduced Biden’s proposed 16 percent increase in non-defense discretionary spending to 13 percent.

But even with this concession to a major GOP priority, appropriators have not been able to agree on a topline figure for the budget, making it nearly impossible to proceed with the appropriations bills.

Under a continuing resolution, the government operates under funding levels set for the previous year.

If that were the case for all of fiscal 2022, certain outdated spending categories, including $69 billion in warfighting funds (known as Overseas Contingency Operations) and $3.3 billion in assistance for the now-defunct Afghan Security Forces, would spring back into existence, Leahy noted.

Iron Dome, a missile defense program for Israel with strong bipartisan support, would be reduced from $1 billion requested by proponents for fiscal 2022 to $73 million, Leahy said.

“Republican members have been quick to criticize Democratic leadership for not bringing the NDAA to the Senate floor for consideration more quickly, yet when it comes to actually funding defense (not just authorizing its programs), they won’t even come to the table,” Leahy said, referring to a recent press conference held by several GOP members of the Armed Services Committee, including James M. Inhofe, the ranking member.

“Yet, on the very same day, I was told that the Republican leadership wants to have a full-year continuing resolution that would cut defense funding. I ask my Republican colleagues, which is it?”

GOP wants parity between defense and non-defense

Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, and his fellow Republicans say they first want an agreement to keep controversial policy riders out of the spending bills, and second parity between the increases for defense and non-defense spending.

He said he expected the focus to turn to appropriations after Thanksgiving once Democrats figure out what to do with a pending infrastructure bill and their budget reconciliation measure known as “The Build Back Better Act.”

In the meantime, the current continuing resolution, passed to allow the government to continue operating into the fiscal year 2022, which started on Oct. 1, is set to expire on Dec. 3.

Byron Callan, a defense analyst for Capital Alpha Partners, recently adjusted his probabilities for when appropriations might get passed by Congress to 45 percent by December or early January 2022 (down from 55 percent), 45 percent by April or May 2022 (up from 35 percent), and 10 percent of a full-year continuing resolution.

“While Democrats have made some progress on Build Back Better, we remain a bit concerned by the continued slip in self-imposed deadlines,” Callan wrote this week in a note to investors.

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