Defense Bill Underway in House; Senate to Decide Fate of Others: Ryan

By Nancy Ognanovich

House Republican leaders said they will bring up a $578 billion Department of Defense spending bill the week of March 6 but plan to leave it to their Senate counterparts to develop a strategy for funding the federal agencies covered by the 10 other unfinished appropriations measures.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said it will be up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to decide whether to add other bills to the Pentagon spending measure before putting it to a vote and sending it back to the House.

“We’re passing that bill off the floor here in the House,” Ryan told reporters. “Whether or not they can take it up or they’re going to do something with it, merge it with something else, it’s more of a Senate question.”

"[A]re we going to have 11 bills moving? No,” Ryan said as the House departed for the week March 2. “For [fiscal year] ’17, we don’t have the time for that as well so we’re going with Defense first. We think Defense is important.”

Early action on the Defense measure and the other spending bills is considered critical because a stopgap measure providing money for federal government agencies is set to expire April 28. House and Senate appropriators, who recently struck a bipartisan deal on the Defense measure, now are trying to wrap up talks on the other bills in order to improve their chances of finishing their 2017 work by the deadline.

McConnell recently said he is committed to bringing up the Defense bill this spring but also hasn’t addressed the status of the other bills. Senate Democrats, however, said GOP leaders appear willing to try to pass other measures. The key, they said, is avoiding “poison pill” riders that could threaten their progress and increase the odds that Congress will resort to another continuing resolution when current monies run out.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he supports the Defense measure, which reflects the levels in appropriations and authorization bills that Democrats signed off on last year.

“What I am concerned about and what members on my side of the aisle are very concerned about is that the remaining non-defense discretionary spending bills will be substantially altered from that which we would have passed in December,” Hoyer told House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) after McCarthy outlined plans for bringing up Defense but none of the other bills.

DOD Gains Democrats’ Support

The decision to bring up Defense is in keeping with Republicans’ practice of prioritizing security-related measures. The only 2017 measure already passed funded Military Construction and Veterans Affairs programs.

However, the latter bill, which was used as a lead vehicle for the CR, used up a large part of the available increase for non-defense programs under the $1.070 trillion discretionary spending cap.

The DOD bill House and Senate appropriators announced March 2 uses up $516.1 billion for base Pentagon programs as well as another $61.8 billion from the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations account not subject to the cap.

The House Appropriations Committee said the total $577.9 billion represents an increase of $5.2 billion over FY 2016 levels. The base funding level is a $2 billion increase, the panel said, and the OCO total is $3.2 billion over current levels.

“When combined with the $5.8 billion in supplemental funding enacted in the [CR] that passed in December, the total Defense funding for [FY] 2017 is $583.7 billion, an increase of $10.9 billion over [FY] 2016,” the committee said.

Those increases help provide an extra $1 billion for 11 additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, $979 million for 12 additional F/A-18 Super Hornets and $339.9 million for 25 Black Hawk helicopters. The measure funds a 2.1 percent pay raise for military and civilian employees.

Democrats in both chambers signed off on the plan, which is being treated as a conference agreement, and signaled they will support it on the House and Senate floors. House Appropriations Committee ranking member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said the measure keeps faith with the discretionary spending caps set out in the two-year bipartisan budget agreement.

“Unlike the Defense appropriations bill passed by the House last June, this bill does not break statutory spending limits nor does it create a shortfall in funding mid-year, which would have affected salaries and mission support for men and women serving bravely in harm’s way,” Lowey said.

‘Cromnibus’ on Tap?

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also called the massive bill “a promising start.” But he said Defense is only one of 11 bills that still has to be finished.

“Now that one party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress, it is incumbent upon them to continue to move us toward that finish line by ensuring that any changes to one bill do not come at the cost of another, and by keeping partisan politics out of the appropriations process,” Leahy said.

Leahy echoed Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, who said controversial riders are a threat to finishing the non-defense bills. Durbin recently suggested a scenario could evolve where some bills are completed via an omnibus and others covered by another CR—or a “cromnibus”—as seen in some prior years.

For his part, Ryan expressed concern about a CR only for Defense.

"[A] continuing resolution is uniquely bad for the military,” Ryan said. "[T]hey have to buy exactly what they bought last year, this year. That’s not how the military operates. Whether it’s munitions, whether it’s supplies, they need to have the flexibility through an appropriations bill that you don’t have in a continuing resolution to be able to customize what they need.”

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To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at

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