Massive Defense Spending Bill Moving in March: Lawmakers

Daily Report for Executives provides in-depth coverage of unfolding legislative, regulatory, and judicial news from the nation’s capital, the states, and around the world. This daily news service...

By Nancy Ognanovich

A massive Pentagon spending bill is expected to hit the House and Senate floors in March and may become the vehicle for some of the additional border security funds sought by President Donald Trump, lawmakers said.

The annual Department of Defense spending bill that Republican leaders are hoping to move during the spring work period is expected to easily exceed $600 billion, particularly if it ends up carrying so-called supplemental war funds for both the Pentagon and money to increase security along the U.S.-Mexico border, they said.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the Republican leadership and the House Appropriations Committee, said details of the package and the strategy for moving it through the House still were in flux as lawmakers prepared on Feb. 16 to leave town for a 10-day recess. But House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) wants the measure to come up in March as a first step to finishing fiscal year 2017 spending, he said.

“We are going to mark up defense, and the defense appropriations bill is essentially done,” Cole told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s a question of putting the supplemental with it and whether you are going to do something on Homeland [Security] where the [border] wall might be inserted. I’m pretty sure that’s going to move.”

The move will signal the start of an effort to wrap up work on the individual government spending bills Congress developed but didn’t finish last December. It also will provide Trump with a vehicle for winning the extra defense and border funds he promised as a candidate.

Across Capitol Hill, Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also plans to bring up the defense bill in March but only after the House finishes the measure. Lawmakers said they expect it will carry the increased Pentagon funds Trump has backed and is expected to formally request as part of a 100-day agenda.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that newly confirmed Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney isn’t likely to fight the increases, even though as a member of the House he criticized increased discretionary spending, including for defense.

“He will be 100 percent [for] increased defense consistent with what the president said,” Graham told reporters.

Mulvaney Seen as on Board

Cole didn’t offer specifics, but House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) has said the $640 billion the panel authorized for the Pentagon for fiscal year 2017 is a starting point for the plan. The $18 billion that the bill carried in extra defense money was dropped in conference but could be restored, he said.

In addition, Ryan has suggested the resources Trump might need for his border initiative—which includes salaries for extra border patrol and immigration officers—will range from $12 billion to $15 billion.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who also leads the Defense Subcommittee, told Bloomberg BNA that he will be ready to advance the legislation soon and dropped his own opposition to the nomination of Mulvaney—a former leader of the House Freedom Caucus—after he was given assurances that the new OMB director won’t try to stand in the way of the funding appropriators want.

“We had a good, frank discussion,” Cochran said of Mulvaney, a frequent critic of appropriators’ bills. “We’re going to give him an opportunity to deliver on his commitments.”

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), a fellow appropriator, told Bloomberg BNA that it will be helpful to have Mulvaney at OMB while the bill is under development.

“He’s going to give his advice,” Boozman said. “But it’s going to be based on the administration, which might be a little different from where he’s been in the past, and then the appropriators and the Budget Committee’s going to look at that and say, `Thanks, this is how we’re going to do it.’ ”

Democrats are also going to demand a say, and it remains possible they will try to block the measure in the Senate if the boost for defense translates into cuts for non-defense programs they favor.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who also is ranking member of the Defense Subcommittee at Appropriations, blamed Mulvaney for helping to bring about the 2013 government shutdown.

“If you look at the record of Mick Mulvaney, you find that he’s had an eagerness to dictate large and draconian cuts across the federal government in some of our most important and most cherished programs,” Durbin said.

Earmarks on Hold—For Now

But the 2017 defense bill that’s coming forward isn’t likely to contain a long list of earmarks as some lawmakers want, Cole said.

Cole said after a closed-door meeting of House Republicans that the caucus decided it will reconsider the long-standing earmark ban later this year. House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) will hold hearings on the issue, he said.

“Looks to me that is going to be delayed to the middle part of the year,” Cole said.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told Bloomberg BNA that he doubted the Senate will go along with a plan to lift the earmark moratorium—even if the House backed it.

“We’ve already adopted a [Senate] rule with an amendment I offered to maintain the ban for a year so we’re not going there and I don’t think the House should either,” Flake said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Try Daily Report for Executives