Not So Fast on Back-to-Back Defense Bills, Reid Says

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By Nancy Ognanovich

May 25 — Senate Democrats signaled they are likely to oppose Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) plan for fast action on back-to-back national defense bills in June.

As lawmakers prepared to head out for a 10-day break, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said his caucus has decided it won't support Republicans' plans to quickly pass a Department of Defense authorization bill and a follow-on DOD appropriations measure if they provide Pentagon spending higher than called for in last fall's two-year bipartisan budget agreement.

Reid said he's been told Republicans will try to amend both bills to boost fiscal year 2017 spending $18 billion higher than called for in the deal. He said that violates the law that set specific spending targets for both defense and non-defense programs.

“We reached agreement last year,” Reid warned on the Senate floor. “Now both sides need to keep our promises and agreement for the American people. We simply must treat the middle class fairly and, make no mistake, as the appropriations process moves forward we're going to insist on that.”

Democrats ‘Proceed Deliberatively.'

Reid revealed Democrats' concerns shortly before they joined Republicans in voting to invoke cloture on a motion to proceed to the $575 billion Defense authorization bill (S. 2943) that was recently unveiled by the Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The action means the Senate will be set to begin debate in earnest on the bill when they return June 6 from the Memorial Day recess.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee chaired by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) plans to meet early May 26 to approve a $574.6 billion Defense appropriations bill (number not yet available) and have that in the queue for action after the authorization bill clears the Senate.

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McConnell announced he plans to use the first weeks back from recess to finish both bills before moving on to other fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill in the run-up to the seven-week recess scheduled to start July 15 (See previous story, 05/24/16). Among them is the $41 billion Homeland Security bill that Cochran also plans to mark up May 26. McConnell also has discussed with appropriators plans to bundle the $21.25 billion Agriculture and $55.28 billion Commerce-Justice-Science bills together in a “minibus” as he did earlier this month with the $83 billion Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill with the $56 billion Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development bill into one “minibus” (H.R. 2577).

But Reid suggested that all that is in jeopardy if Republicans decide to boost defense spending while providing no further increases for domestic programs.

Reid led Democrats in voting to move on to the DOD authorization bill but suggested they may withhold support for the measure later.

“Democrats are going to proceed deliberately,” Reid said. “We're going to hold Republicans to their word on the budget agreement. We're going to do our jobs as we want them to do theirs.”

Reid last year successfully led his caucus in opposing a motion to move on to the fiscal year 2016 Defense appropriations bill over a similar dispute. After that, McConnell stopped bringing spending bills to the floor.

$18 Billion OCO Dispute

Under the two-year budget deal, the caps for both defense and non-defense discretionary spending were increased $25 billion in 2016 and now another $15 billion in 2017. This year's defense cap is $551.1 billion and non-defense is $518.5 billion. In addition, the deal permitted another $58.6 billion in OCO funds not subject to the discretionary cap to be spent on defense programs.

Democrats praised the Defense appropriations bill that Cochran unveiled, saying the $516 billion base appropriations and $58.6 billion for OCO funds conforms to the budget agreement. But Reid said they are concerned that when Republicans bring up both the authorization and appropriations bills they will try to add an extra $18 billion in OCO funds to the measures.

Reid's Leadership Called ‘Cancerous.'

Reid's stance drew criticism from Republicans, particularly Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who blamed the minority leader for requiring McConnell to file cloture on the motion to proceed, a commonplace procedural move also frequently seen when Republicans were in the minority.

Cotton said Reid is delaying the legislation only to protect “his own sad, sorry legacy.” He also criticized Reid for saying the Senate should work more days and stay in session until it passes a supplemental to address the Zika virus.

“Whatever you think about that, the happy by-product of fewer days in session in the Senate is that this institution will be cursed less with his cancerous leadership,” Cotton said.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com