National Journal

The dispute over defense vs. domestic funds means spending bills will pile up until September. What happens then?

By Fawn Johnson
June 7, 2015

The message from Senate Democrats this week will go like this: Serious talks should begin now on avoiding a government shutdown. Why force us to carry out our threat of blocking all spending bills until we hit September, the last few days of the fiscal year, to come up with a panicked back-against-the-wall solution? We all know that’s where we’re heading.

Lawmakers from both parties admit they haven’t gotten past the posturing part of this battle to a point where they can sit down and actually negotiate. People in both the Republican and Democratic caucuses are hoping for a budget compromise like the one struck by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray two years ago, but there has not yet been a whisper of even an introductory meeting to start such a bargaining session.

In the meantime, the Senate will spend this week debating the finer points of a crucial defense authorization bill that might already be a dead horse. It is expected to pass the Senate, perhaps by the end of the week. But it will have to be reconciled with a House version, and the White House has threatened to veto the final bill if it includes a funding “gimmick” to meet its own request of some $612 billion for the Defense Department.

Before final passage in the Senate, Democrats will make the case that mandatory budget caps put in place more than three years ago are damaging to U.S. troops and the country’s national security. They will ask that the measure’s $40 billion in off-budget contingency war funds be walled off until a similar amount of money is made available for nondefense agencies like the Veterans Affairs Department or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, sponsors the amendment that would unravel the “escape route” from budget caps that GOP hawks have used to backfill the required cuts to the military. He argues that other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institutes of Health, are just as critical to national security as the Defense Department. “What about the Centers for Disease Control? How do we help protect Americans from things like Ebola?” he queried last week.

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