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Lawmaker signals no deal in place to fund defense bill, sounds alarm on government shutdown

A view of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 26, 2017.

MICHAEL S. DARNELL/STARS AND STRIPES

By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 30, 2017

WASHINGTON — The ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday said members are “nowhere” on a deal to fund a massive $700 billion defense bill.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said members have yet to strike a deal to appropriate funds that would move forward the 2018 defense budget since it surpasses statutory budget caps.

Two weeks ago, Congress sent the defense bill, also known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, to President Donald Trump’s desk for him to sign. But since it surpasses caps by about $80 billion, it will need a special legislative fix to approve the additional funding.

“It’s nowhere,” Smith said during a morning breakfast meeting with journalists about negotiations to surpass the caps. “People are talking and mumbling and everything, but the decision makers are not having a conversation. And as far as I can tell, there has been no progress whatsoever towards figuring how to resolve the budget cap problem.”

If resolved, and the defense bill, as it stands now, is funded, it would enact raises for servicemembers, increase the size of the military, fund new ships and aircrafts and authorize new spending on missile defense. The bill was approved by the Senate on Nov. 16 and sent to the president’s desk ahead of Thanksgiving.

Congressional members who negotiated the deal have lauded the plan, which authorizes funding for the Department of Defense and national security programs through the Department of Energy. But additional legislation is required to approve the actual funding.

Though the plan has overcome several significant hurdles, it set the stage for a new fight on how to fund the major increase in military spending. It surpasses the budget cap of $549 billion for defense spending and will require new congressional action to be enacted. Otherwise, the proposed budget could trigger automatic, across-the-board spending cuts.

Smith also sounded the alarm that Congress is headed for a government shutdown, which would happen if members don’t strike an overall budget deal by the Dec. 8 deadline. Smith suggested that such a shutdown could, however, last a short period of time before another temporary funding bill is approved.

In September, Congress approved a temporary funding measure that gave Congress at least three months to approve a new overall spending plan for fiscal 2018, which started Oct. 1.

But that also meant a new military budget was on the clock: Congress has until Dec. 8 to come up with a deal to fund its defense proposal or it might have to delay its spending plans again.

Congress has been here before. Former President Barack Obama signed the 2017 defense policy plan Dec. 23, 2016. But faced with another round of delays, a $1.1 trillion omnibus government spending bill that included the defense budget wasn’t approved until May. Until then, military operations were kept afloat by a short-term funding bill — as is the case now.

Smith suggested Congress and the defense bill could be in a tougher position this time.

“It’s worse,” he said, following the meeting at the Fairmont Washington, D.C., Georgetown hotel. “I don’t see the agreement.”

The bill is comprised of a base budget of more than $620 billion, with $66 billion in a warfighting account not subject to budget caps called the Overseas Contingency Operations fund and another $8 billion for other defense activities.

The defense budget directs $26.2 billion for 14 new ships and $10.1 billion for the purchase of 90 Joint Strike Fighters. It directs another $5.9 billion for Virginia-class submarines, $5.6 billion for Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, $4.4 billion for aircraft carriers, $3.1 billion for Army helicopters and $1.9 billion for procuring 24 F/A-18 Super Hornets.

The defense bill also directs for the funding of repairs to the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain, which were both badly damaged in separate crashes that left 17 sailors dead.

The plan authorizes $141.8 billion for military personnel, including the cost of pay, allowances, bonuses, death benefits and change of station moves. It authorizes another $33.7 billion for the Defense Health Program and re-authorizes 30 types of bonuses and payments linked to recruiting. It also includes a 2.4 percent pay increase for servicemembers.

While Trump has yet to sign off on the plan, the White House has signaled its support.

“The president supports and will sign the NDAA,” Deputy White House Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. “This legislation meets President Trump’s priorities to end the defense sequester, rebuild our military readiness and modernize our armed forces for the future.”

grisales.claudia@stripes.com
Twitter: @cgrisales

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