Democrats Draw the Line on Defense Spending

In both chambers, the minority wants to stop the majority from passing bills that skirt or bust funding caps.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) speaks during a news conference March 20, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. U.S. (National Journal)

As Republicans celebrate a fast-clearing legislative logjam and early progress on next year's funding bills, Democrats are working to put a stop to those feel-good vibes—by drawing a line in the sand on defense spending.

In both the House and the Senate, Democrats have lined up against the GOP's approach to funding the military, raising questions of whether Republicans can get through the appropriations process without making concessions on sequester-level spending.

And should Republicans push their spending bills through the Capitol, Democrats are confident that President Obama will force them back to the negotiating table by vetoing any measures that don't lift spending caps. "Ultimately the president will not allow Republican leadership to get away with these games," House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen said in an interview Friday. "I'm confident the president will insist on an economy that works for all Americans."

On Thursday, House Republicans passed the first of a dozen spending measures, a military construction and Veterans Affairs bill that went through with just a single dissenting vote last year. This time, all but 19 Democrats lined up against the bill—and Van Hollen teamed up with some conservatives on amendments that delayed and complicated its passage.

And as that and other bills make their way to the Senate, soon-to-be Democratic caucus leader Chuck Schumer is declaring them DOA—unless Republicans give in to their funding demands. "We're putting them on notice," Schumer said last week. "Republicans should be warned right here, right now: Democrats are not going to help you pass appropriations bills that lock in senseless, automatically triggered cuts that hurt the middle class."

Republicans hope Schumer's colleagues prove more willing to negotiate. "[W]e'll have plenty of disagreements over how the money is spent during the process," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when told of Schumer's remarks. "But what I'd like to have is an amendment process that actually brings up individual bills, brings them across the floor. They're open for amendment. Senators have an opportunity to make their complaints. And I'm sure the Democrats will complain—as they did to you a few moments ago—that we're not spending enough on the domestic side. But all of that could be sorted out in the appropriations process."

The so-called sequestration cuts have long been an issue for Capitol Hill Democrats. But as Republicans seek to get around defense spending limits to appease the hawks in their party—without such consideration for domestic limits—Democrats say they've finally had enough. Van Hollen, who led the fight against the military construction bill, said the GOP's spending approach is a double standard.

"I think the public's very aware of the fact that the Republicans are playing this game with their budget and trying to increase defense spending at the expense of important investments in our economy," he said. "The OCO (Overseas Contingency Operations) slush fund is a recipe for budget crisis."

Van Hollen joined with conservative GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney last week to introduce amendments that would have stopped Republican leadership from upping the overseas contingency operations account—a fund ostensibly reserved for war operations—to get around sequester-imposed spending caps. GOP leadership delayed the overall spending bill when it appeared the amendments might have enough support for passage, but a majority of Republicans stuck together Thursday to block them from being added to the bill.

Meanwhile, Democrats have problems with the funding levels in many of the appropriations bills. Caucus leaders this week told their members that the amount appropriated for veterans services was unacceptable, citing concerns raised by VA Secretary Robert McDonald.

Republicans in turn called the bill a big step forward and blamed the White House for failing to clear up the VA's problems. "The House is continuing to do its part by increasing funding for the VA, and directing those resources toward the areas that need it most: improving health care, expediting claims, advancing medical and prosthetic research, modernizing electronic health records, and more," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement.

And even noncontroversial defense bills, some Democrats say, will get no traction within their party without accompanying domestic spending levels that meet their liking. "One dollar for defense, one dollar for the middle class," Schumer said. Any spending bills will likely need at least six Democratic votes in the Senate to earn passage, and Schumer is calling on his caucus to block any and all measures until Republicans begin to roll back sequestration levels.

Republicans have signaled they may be open to a deal that could reduce those cuts, but it remains to be seen whether enough Democrats will band together—or Obama issues a veto—to force their hand.