Despite Risks, Democrats Maintain Stand on Pentagon Spending

The minority party is betting that opposition to the defense bill won't hurt it next November.

House Democrats are holding to their pledge to oppose Republican budget "gimmicks"—even if that means taking the political risk of voting against Pentagon funding.

On Wednesday morning, Democratic leadership came out in opposition to the defense authorization bill slated to come up for votes in the House by the end of the week. At issue is the GOP's use of a war-funding account to circumvent mandated spending caps—while leaving in place such limits for domestic expenses.

Democrats have long opposed the use of the Overseas Contingency Operations fund to up defense spending—and they have opposed sequestration-imposed caps in general—but those reservations did not prevent the annual authorization bill from passing through the House Armed Services Committee on a 60-2 vote.

Still, members quickly lined up to oppose the bill after caucus leaders deemed it unacceptable. "I understand that finding a compromise to remove the caps has been elusive, but that does not justify the use of gimmicks to protect one part of the budget, and shortchange other portions that are vitally important to the future of our country," Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith said in a statement.

For Smith and other Democrats who favor robust defense spending, opposing the defense bill doesn't appear to be as toxic as it once was. "This vote is absolutely explainable," said Rep. Steve Israel, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for two cycles. "Republicans are engaging in budget gimmicks that are bad for national security, and as long as you can explain it to your voters, you'll be fine."

Rep. Gerald Connolly, who is undecided on the bill, agreed with that sentiment. "In my district, there's a very educated, discerning, well-informed electorate," he said of his Northern Virginia district, packed with members of the military and defense contractors. "They know all about sequestration."

House Democrats' numbers have been thinned by several tough campaign cycles, and many of their most vulnerable members have already lost their seats. Still, some acknowledged that opposing the defense bill could put members in a tough spot. "I would hope and expect that people with bases and significant weapons systems in their districts are still going to be yes," said Rep. Kurt Schrader, who chairs the moderate Blue Dog Coalition. While he plans to vote no, he said that "people who have big defense in their district should probably be really careful about that."

Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen said in an interview earlier this month that voters are more than ready for Democrats to take a stand. "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," Van Hollen said. "The OCO slush fund is a recipe for budget crisis."

Connolly added that voters are hoping to see sequestration rolled back, and backing the defense bill would be "tantamount to saying that we have abandoned any realistic effort to make restorations on the domestic side."

The fact that Republicans likely have the votes on their own side to pass the bill also makes it easier for Democrats to take a stand in opposition.

"Are there times you have to weigh the consequences of the vote as you're weighing the merits of the case at hand?" Connolly asked, noting that even if the defense bill fails, there are still opportunities to find a solution. "Yes, there are consequences, but you can go back to the drawing board and correct some problems here, or you can provide some relief on the civilian side."