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Senators eye Ukraine aid bills as avenue to increase DOD budget

Defense hawks, unhappy with the limits on the Defense Department's budget in the debt ceiling bill, are seeking ways to add more funding to the Pentagon.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., floated the idea of using bills that provide funds for Ukraine aid to increase the Pentagon's budget.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., floated the idea of using bills that provide funds for Ukraine aid to increase the Pentagon's budget. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senators on Wednesday signaled interest in using Ukraine-focused supplemental spending bills as a mechanism to secure defense spending outside of strict caps that would be imposed by a debt limit compromise deal.

The caps would restrain defense spending in fiscal 2024 to $886 billion, the level proposed by President Joe Biden — a roughly 3 percent increase from current levels. In fiscal 2025, the cap would be $895 billion, a 1 percent increase from fiscal 2024.

But Ukraine aid, if classified as emergency funding, could not count toward those limits, providing lawmakers with an outside avenue for military spending. Congress has appropriated supplemental funds for Ukraine before, including a measure Biden signed into law in May 2022.

“When you have a supplemental for Ukraine, I’m hoping we’ll use that as an opportunity to repair the damage done by this budget deal,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I don’t see how we help the Ukrainian military and not help our own.”

The compromise deal, which would stave off a catastrophic debt ceiling breach and impose across-the-board spending limits, passed the House by a vote of 314-177 on Wednesday. The Senate is aiming to pass the bill before the default deadline of June 5, though consideration could drag longer if an individual senator uses procedural tactics to force a delay.

Graham said he planned to offer amendments that would remove the defense spending caps and state U.S. support for Ukraine.

Republican senators for months have slammed the Biden administration’s Defense Department budget proposal, arguing it does not do enough to build up the U.S. military in the face of Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific. Many are wary of a debt limit deal that would lock in those spending levels.

“I’d like to be spending more on defense, and believe with emergency supplemental we’ll be able to do that,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. “Clearly our support for Ukraine will be outside the budget, as it has been in the past, but I’d like to see additional support for our own military in emergency supplementals as well.”

With Ukraine aid poised to run out before the fall, Congress will likely need to consider a supplemental aid package in the coming months, though it remains far from clear whether such a bill would pass the House. Several GOP lawmakers in that chamber oppose additional aid for Ukraine, and the Republican majority is incredibly slim.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, a member of the Armed Services Committee, noted significant bipartisan support in recent years for defense spending bills that provide billions of dollars more than the president asked for. In nearly every budget hearing in recent weeks, lawmakers from both parties have suggested a willingness to repeat that trend.

“When the president puts a budget forward, everyone recognizes it’s not adequate, so we plussed it up in the NDAA in very significant ways, always with bipartisan support,” Sullivan said, referring to the National Defense Authorization Act. “That’s kind of been the rhythm, and that was definitely going to be the rhythm of this NDAA. And then the music stopped.”

Sullivan plans to offer an amendment that would claw back IRS money and redirect it to Pentagon unfunded priority lists — projects the Defense Department would like funded that weren’t included in the main budget request.

Democrats against default

Sullivan added that he’s spoken to Democrats who share his concerns about the defense spending limits. But Democratic senators on Wednesday were hesitant to criticize the debt limit deal, arguing that a default would be far more disastrous for the country.

“We have to get through this problem right now. Sit down, see what the impact is with respect to our defense strategy, our posture, where there are continuing deficiencies,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “That’s going to take getting this done first, and thinking hard about what we need.”

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he was “looking at options” to address military needs related to Ukraine, China and counterterrorism that aren’t met under the caps, but that avoiding a default was his first priority.

But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who also sits on the Armed Services Committee, hinted he would be open to the prospect of supplemental funding as an avenue for military spending not directly tied to Ukraine — such as competing militarily with China.

“We are almost certainly going to need a supplemental for Ukraine, which is, in my view, one of the most pressing defense challenges we have right now,” he said. “And the other obligations flow from China and Taiwan on one hand and Russia and Ukraine on the other.”

The defense caps would significantly change the trajectory of the fiscal 2024 defense authorization bill, which the House and Senate Armed Services panels are aiming to mark up in June. If it goes through, the debt ceiling bill will force some tough decisions upon lawmakers of both parties who have in recent years signed off on hefty increases to the Pentagon’s budget.

“I think what we have is a compromise,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Armed Services Committee. “Everybody has to give a little.”

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