Defense-Spending Battle May Produce Government Shutdown

Defense hawks are getting impatient with spending negotiations and could deny their votes to another stopgap bill. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

You might get the impression from recent news that the escalating dispute in Washington over immigration policy — the plight of Dreamers, the countervailing nativist demand for less immigration from what the president reportedly calls “shithole countries,” and a hundred other issues — is the main reason for fearing an impasse in spending negotiations and a government shutdown when the current stopgap spending authority expires on January 19.

But there’s another fight going on as well, one that is as important to conservative Republicans as the DACA fight is to liberal Democrats.

Defense hawks in the GOP, who say short-term spending bills cripple the military, are threatening to vote against another stopgap without a long-term deal in hand to increase Pentagon funding.

And while it’s possible the immigration deal can be spun off into onto a separate track that won’t threaten funding for the entire federal government, defense-spending demands cannot really be separated from a spending bill.

The battle lines are pretty clear: A deal is required, supported by 60 Senate votes, to suspend the separate defense and non-defense “spending caps” imposed in 2011 as part of a deal between President Obama and congressional Republicans. Without a suspension of these caps, spending will be subject to automatic cuts — known as a “sequester” — at a time when Congress clearly wants more, not less, spending. But House conservatives are chafing at the usual deal that lets defense and non-defense spending rise together. And Democrats in both chambers are opposing the idea of giving the Pentagon a year-long spending hike even as other types of spending are subjected to another stopgap bill and further negotiations. Add in Democratic DACA demands to the mix, and you’ve got real obstacles to any bill that could temporarily or more permanently avoid a shutdown.

So the GOP congressional leadership is caught between apparently irreconcilable demands from the left and right, and has very little time to resolve it all and get a majority vote from the House and a supermajority in the Senate.

Defense hawks very nearly derailed the last stopgap spending bill just before Christmas. Now they are no longer in the mood to give Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell their votes without their demands being met, as Politico notes:

Part of GOP leadership’s plea to defense hawks at the time was a promise to have a broader spending deal in hand by the next deadline on Jan. 19. Ryan and his deputies said then that an accord was close, and just one more month of negotiations should finish it up.

Now, one week from that new deadline, there’s little expectation on Capitol Hill that a spending cap deal will be passed by next Friday.

With spending talks seemingly stalled, defense hawks are threatening that they won’t buy leaders more time.

And that’s the rub. Buying more time when a complex deal isn’t complete is the only way to avoid a shutdown that everyone claims they don’t want. But in the end, making a credible threat to shut down the government may be the only way Congress’s warring factions can get their way. That includes the defense hawks who are offended that the military has to suffer through fears about funding like everyone else.

Defense-Spending Battle Could Trigger Government Shutdown