Democrats Set to Block Defense Bill Amid GOP Attacks
The Senate minority wants to make a stand on budget caps, and the majority hopes to make them pay for it.
Senate Democrats hope to stop a lauded defense authorization bill this week before President Obama has a chance to veto it. It will mark their latest, but by no means last, vote in protest of mandatory across-the-board budget cuts that were agreed to four years ago as part of a deal to avert a global fiscal crisis.
Blocking the annual National Defense Authorization Act would be an extraordinary move if Democrats can pull it off. The bill is widely considered one of the most important pieces of business for Congress each year. It is generally written on a bipartisan basis, and it contains hundreds of provisions to assist the military in its various operations. This year's bill includes a pay raise for the troops and a long-awaited 401(k) program for service members who serve fewer than 20 years—that is, most of them.
Voting "no" is politically dangerous, opening lawmakers up to accusations that they don't love America. Yet this is where the fight is heading for Democrats.
The Senate is poised to vote Tuesday to wrap up debate on the bill after several weeks of considering mostly noncontroversial amendments. Democrats, including Jack Reed, the top senator on the Armed Services Committee, oppose the overall legislation for one reason: It contains a funding gimmick designed to get around the required budget cuts. Republican defense chiefs added some $40 billion in off-budget contingency war funds to backfill the shortfall aimed at the Pentagon.
The contingency funds, ironically, give President Obama his exact budget request for the troops. The president is threatening to veto the bill anyway, for the same reason Democrats are expected to block it. The president and Democrats correctly point out that the mandatory cuts were never intended to be permanent and are supposed to compel lawmakers to hammer out a less harsh, mutually agreeable budget deal.
Democrats are asking Republicans and Democrats to sit down now and hammer out a new budget agreement, anything really, that is more palatable than the current draconian cuts. "Let's start those negotiations soon before it's too late," said Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate. In a particularly damning floor speech, Schumer denounced Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for playing a "game of chicken." The standoff could lead to a government shutdown, he warned.
So far, Republicans haven't taken up the invitation. Instead, they are daring rank-and-file Democrats to break with their party leaders on a politically popular bill that takes care of America's troops. "I would think this would be of some concern to common-sense Democrats. They have to be wondering if their leaders have totally lost it, completely lost it," McConnell said on the floor.
Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican in her first term, reflected the sentiment of more junior GOP senators about Democrats' demand for a leadership budget summit. "That is baloney. I am a U.S. senator," she said in an interview. "The people of Nebraska sent me here to do the work, and you're telling me that I shouldn't be having any say in appropriations bills and let a room full of people decide what to do?"
All along, this fight has been aimed squarely at the government funding process, with at least a hint that the popular NDAA wouldn't be caught up in the net. Earlier this month, Senate Democratic leaders indicated they would tolerate "yes" votes on NDAA because, technically, it sets defense policy rather than giving money to the troops. But a Democratic leadership aide said last week that the caucus has hardened against the NDAA, too. The normally polite debate started to go south when a Reed amendment to undo the budget ploy was rejected by Republicans, the aide said. It got worse after that.
McConnell then attempted to attach a cybersecurity bill that had not been fully vetted by Democrats. In a surprise to some Republicans, Democrats voted against the amendment even though all lawmakers have been trying for years to move legislation to press companies to give federal investigators access to their computer networks. Democrats argued that McConnell's move was an underhanded attempt to slip complex legislation under the door and bypass an important floor debate.
Then McConnell moved to end the NDAA debate, setting up Tuesday's vote. The maneuver only intensified Democrats' animosity.
The veracity of Obama's opposition to the budget gimmick may be bolstering Democrats' willingness to vote against the bill. Republican leaders are understandably dubious that Obama is serious, because he has threatened to veto defense bills before without doing so. But at least one prominent Republican, Armed Services Chairman John McCain, says this time is different. Asked whether he believes Obama will carry out the veto, McCain said: "I'm afraid so. I'm afraid so. It's a terrible setback for the military. It's really a very serious setback."
Democrats will argue this week that this backdoor approach to maintaining an adequate defense budget actually harms the troops. The contingency war fund is year to year, which means Defense Department officials have no way to plan for multiyear equipment purchases or research. At the same time, defense chiefs on Capitol Hill are loudly worrying that the weapons and communications systems for U.S. troops are fast becoming obsolete. Soon an off-the-shelf smartphone will be more advanced than soldiers' walkie-talkies, defense analysts say.
It won't be an easy sell for Democrats. In making their case against the defense authorization bill, they will be forced to contend with rhetoric like this from Fischer, a member of the Armed Services Committee: "I can't imagine how you could vote 'no' and be able to go home and look at your constituents. How do you explain to them that you voted no in taking care of our military and our national security?"
This week, Democrats are going to try.