Sen. Jack Reed voted against the defense authorization bill in committee.

Sen. Jack Reed voted against the defense authorization bill in committee. Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

Democrats' Shifting Line on Pentagon Spending

The minority party has vowed to block appropriations bills for their use of a "slush fund." But they'll let the authorization bill go through.

Senate Democrats are drawing a line in the sand on defense spending—sort of.

They are acknowledging that members of their party will have a hard time voting against an annual defense authorization bill, which includes a number of welcome changes for troops, including a pay raise and 401(k) options for new recruits.

In deference to that sentiment, Democratic leaders said Thursday that they aren't going to block the bill.

But when it comes to defense appropriations bills, they will use every tool at their disposal to stop them from getting through the Senate.

At issue is a much-derided funding "gimmick" that uses contingency war funds to plug a Defense Department budget shortfall that has been demanded by across-the-board spending rules. "We have agreement that the appropriations bill is the place to have this discussion," said Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"We will not vote to proceed to the defense appropriations bill or any appropriations bill" until the budget matter is settled, said Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate.

But Democratic leaders say they are willing to allow "yes" votes on a critical defense authorization bill next week, even if the measure includes the war contingency funding. A senior Democratic aide who requested anonymity to discuss party strategy said it was clear that some members would want to vote for the bill, and added that the Democratic leaders would not muscle the caucus into voting against the bill when it comes time for final passage. It's not clear where the votes will fall.

Reed's statement that the budget fight should take place on appropriations bills is a slight shift from his earlier position. He voted against the National Defense Authorization Act in committee—a first for party leader on that panel—because it uses the slush fund. Reed supports the defense bill in most other aspects.

Reed will put an amendment on the floor early next week that would effectively remove the NDAA's $40 billion in contingency "slush fund" money from the DOD's budget until an equal amount of money is put in place for domestic programs. He says he hopes the amendment will pass, but that is by no means guaranteed.

If the amendment doesn't pass, it's not clear whether Reed will continue his opposition to the bill as a whole. "We'll have to consider what we'll do on final passage," he said.

Republicans took a dim view of the Democrats' shift.

"It's just interesting that Democrats said they were going to first block the defense authorization act in committee … and it passed the committee with only four Democrats voting against it," Sen. John Barrasso said.

"Then [Senate Minority Leader Harry] Reid said they were going to block the defense authorization act from getting on the floor. Well it got on the floor by a voice vote. So that's coming down the line it just seems that they continue to come up with this locker room talk that says one thing but then when it comes down to the actual voting, they vote a different way. So we'll have to see. We'll see. I'm just saying what they've said and said and said. And it'll matter what just actually happens."

The one person missing from the dais Thursday was, in fact, the person who gave the Democrats the idea that they should not draw the hard budget line on the defense authorization bill—Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain.

McCain has been saying for weeks that the Democrats' protests about across-the-board budget caps should take place on the annual government spending bills, not a critical defense policy bill.

In a recent interview, McCain said he has sympathy for the Democrats' concerns about the arbitrary budget caps, although he isn't as passionate as they are about spending on domestic policies.

McCain agrees wholeheartedly with Democrats that using the annual contingency fund as an escape route from the budget caps is a dumb idea. "Our failure to act to repeal sequestration and replace it with a process that only takes care of defense on a year to year basis is really a gross disservice to the men and women of the military," McCain said.

Democrats couldn't agree more on that point. "We don't believe you are really helping our national defense with a temporary extension of OCO," said Durbin, using the shorthand for the contingency fund.

But, he added, "we want to move the debate to a different level." Or rather, a different bill, not the popular one that takes care of troops.

Alex Rogers contributed to this article.