Congress hits the next shutdown deadline in six weeks, and another funding punt is already fated unless Democrats stop shunning the edgy debate over boosting military spending.
Senate Democrats released their full array of spending bills Monday afternoon to fund the government at fresh levels for the fiscal year that started this month, proposing a 5 percent hike for the military and a 13 percent increase for non-defense programs over the previous year. But those bills, totaling about $1.5 trillion, are already toast in the upper chamber, where Republican lawmakers are once again demanding that Pentagon funding and non-defense cash be boosted by the same amount.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the Senate’s top GOP appropriator, said the bills “fail to give equal consideration to our nation’s defense” and contain a litany of other issues that tank any chance of Republican support.
President Joe Biden and top Democrats on Capitol Hill have yet to start brokering a bipartisan deal on the two main buckets of government funding. Tabling that tricky “topline” conversation avoids more strife within the Democratic caucus as the party separately battles over the cost of Biden’s multitrillion-dollar policy ambitions. As long as the stall tactics persist, however, Republicans say a grand appropriations deal will remain elusive.
“If Democrats want full year appropriations bills, they must abandon their go-it-alone strategy and come to the table to negotiate,” Shelby said in a statement Monday. “We need a topline agreement that does not shortchange our nation’s defense and a willingness to set aside partisan politics. Only then will we be able to produce full year bills for the American people.”
The next shutdown deadline is teed up for Dec. 3, when the Treasury Department is also expected to hit its borrowing limit to keep paying the government’s bills on time. In the past, action on the debt limit has often spurred negotiations on the kind of overarching budget agreement Republicans are seeking, like the 2019 deal then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin struck with congressional Democrats to hike spending and waive the debt ceiling.
But not this year.
Aides on both sides of the aisle warn that failure to reach an agreement on annual spending bills will likely result in a one-year stopgap measure, slating current government funding levels for a total of 12 months and denying any significant budget boosts for agencies.
Top Republicans have for months noted the irony. Congress last struck a government funding deal in December 2020, when President Donald Trump was still in office. Those levels could live on if lawmakers can’t clinch a new accord. And any appropriations compromise will ultimately require support from at least 10 GOP senators.
“Now you’ve got the presidency and the House and the Senate. And the best you can do is Donald Trump’s last budget?” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) has said about the prospect of a full-year stopgap. “I think their side would explode.”
Republicans on the Senate spending panel publicly delivered their ultimatum last month on funding negotiations. Until the two parties strike a bipartisan budget agreement, they said, GOP senators will block action on any spending bills Democrats try to advance.
The 5 percent Pentagon budget hike Senate Democrats have proposed is in line with what House Democrats and Republicans approved in their version of annual defense policy legislation, and far more than the 1.7 percent increase Biden pitched in his fiscal 2022 budget request.
The 13 percent increase for non-defense programs is also less than the 16 percent hike the White House has proposed. But Democrats are still looking to fulfill a number of the president’s top domestic priorities, including the creation of a new agency within the National Institutes of Health that would focus on research into diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
Shelby knocked Democrats for forgoing longstanding funding language that bars federal money from being used to perform abortions, proposing to cut cash for border security activities and devoting billions of dollars to climate change mitigation efforts.
Moderate Democrats are unlikely to support the 13 percent increase for non-defense programs, while progressive Democrats like Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) insist on slashing the military budget by as much as 10 percent.
Democratic leaders have avoided provoking conflict among their own over funding levels this year, focusing instead on the $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package Biden signed in March and then the “two-track” effort to pass the infrastructure deal along with the social spending plan they are still struggling to enact. Amid that policy focus, Biden submitted his budget request in late May, weeks past the deadline and later than any president has ever sent the fiscal wishlist to Congress.
Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.