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NDAA victory aside, the real Pentagon money fight awaits

None of the fiscal 2022 appropriations bills have become law yet amid disputes over defense vs. nondefense spending and policy riders

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talks with reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talks with reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Clearing the annual defense authorization bill for President Joe Biden’s signature came with a reality check from the Senate’s top appropriator: The bill doesn’t actually include “one penny” for the Pentagon.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy’s comments Wednesday might have been news to some more junior lawmakers on Capitol Hill, or possibly some senior ones as well, given the number of press releases, floor speeches and tweets that hailed the authorization bill as a “spending” or “budget” measure.

“The NDAA is a promissory note. The appropriations bill is the cash,” Leahy sought to remind anyone listening.

The Vermont Democrat’s comments briefly sum up one of the more convoluted aspects of the annual budget and appropriations process — it’s a multistep endeavor that Congress rarely undertakes in order, or on time. And not all members always understand what’s happening.

The actual process of providing money to the Defense Department, and every other federal agency, is far from over, Leahy cautioned.

None of the dozen fiscal 2022 appropriations bills have become law due to disputes over the split between defense and nondefense programs, as well as what policy riders ultimately get attached to the bills.

Agencies are operating under a temporary stopgap funding law that runs out on Feb. 18, giving lawmakers and the White House about two more months to figure out a plan, write the bills and push them through both chambers.

The partisan differences were on display Wednesday when Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby said the bipartisan authorized funding level in the defense bill — nearly $778 billion, a 5 percent increase over last year — wasn’t enough.

“I think that’s a good start, but that’s not what they need. They need more, and the military will tell you that,” Shelby said. “It’s better than what it was, but it’s not as good as it should be.”

The Alabama Republican declined to say exactly how much he wants to see defense spending levels increase, but he said he’s talking with his Democratic counterparts in both chambers as well as Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“We’d like to get to a point of real negotiations, but we’re not there yet,” Shelby said.

‘Hell of a lot more’

Democrats are unlikely to be on board with increasing the 5 percent boost for defense and national security programs, especially after Republicans in both chambers endorsed the NDAA topline in large numbers. In the House, 194 out of 213 Republicans voted for the defense authorization bill; in the Senate, only three out of 50 Republicans voted against it.

“I think we’ve plussed up what the president wanted, and that’s a hell of a lot more than what Trump’s budget was,” said Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. “The military has got enough money in this bill to effectively protect this country. And we can keep putting money in, but let’s pay for it if we’re going to do that.”

President Joe Biden in February proposed a $753 billion defense budget for fiscal 2022, a nearly 1.7 percent increase. House Democrats boosted that increase to about 2 percent in their appropriations bills, but the House and Senate Armed Services Committees quickly made clear that wasn’t enough.

The Senate Appropriations Committee followed the Armed Services lead with a 5 percent defense increase. But while they proposed trimming nondefense increases from the Biden request, which totaled 16 percent on average, the panel’s bills proposed a still-hefty 13 percent increase. Shelby said those levels weren’t acceptable since they didn’t achieve “parity” between the two broad categories of discretionary spending.

Shelby’s comments Wednesday about boosting defense funding higher than Congress has authorized might muddy the waters a bit after Republicans in both chambers praised the authorized spending level in that bill.

Rep. Tom Cole, the top Republican on the Rules Committee and Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said earlier this month the NDAA “fully funds our defense needs for the coming year.”

On Wednesday, Senate GOP Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said he was “very pleased” that “thanks in large part to Republican efforts, Democrats and Republicans have agreed on a final number that will continue our reinvestment in our military.”

Senate Armed Services ranking member James M. Inhofe said he wasn’t entirely sure what appropriators would do, but said it was his “educated guess” they would go with the authorizing level.

“The way that our system has always worked is that we try to anticipate the proper amount. And, at least in theory, the appropriators look and see what we have done so they can use that as their valuable information and indicator,” Inhofe, R-Okla., said. “Now whether they do that or not, I don’t know. I’m inclined to think they will.”

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the top Republican on the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said Wednesday that both parties should be thinking about ways to avoid a full-year continuing resolution, which would largely continue funding levels and policy.

Blunt, who is retiring after this Congress, suggested Leahy’s proposed funding split might be a reasonable compromise in order to avoid a yearlong stalemate.

“If we have a CR, there’s no [new] defense spending, and Republicans should think about that, and I am,” Blunt said. “And I think Democrats should be, at the very least, willing to pay for that defense spending increase today in the authorization bill out of the nondefense side, and I think that would take the nondefense growth from around 16 percent growth to something around 12 or 13” percent.

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