House government funding bill seeks to soften blow from sequester

Republican appropriators on Monday introduced a $984 billion government-funding bill that takes several steps to cushion the Pentagon and other agencies from the blow of $85 billion in sequester spending cuts.

It would shift about $10.4 billion into the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance account by cutting other defense accounts, including a $3.6 billion reduction in personnel funds, $2.5 billion less in research and development, and $4.2 billion less in equipment procurement.

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The change would give the Pentagon more flexibility to put money into operations accounts that were facing a shortfall this year and were threatened by a full-year continuing resolution, including training programs, weapons maintenance, civilian personnel and military healthcare.

“The key is they are moving the money into the accounts where it’s needed, so that DOD will not have to make as drastic as reductions in things like readiness,” Todd Harrison, a budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said. “This helps alleviate the problem, but it’s also important to note it does not fully alleviate the problem [due to sequestration].” 

The bill does not contain any new authority for the Pentagon to shift money between Pentagon accounts in response to the sequester, an aide said. 

Late Monday, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office officially scored the bill as spending $984 billion once sequestration is taken into account. This is $10 billion more than House leaders predicted the bill would spend last week. While it still cuts the full $85 billion through sequester, the base amount is higher due to war and emergency spending, House appropriators say. 

The GOP bill, which would keep the government funded through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, also includes language to help other agencies deal with the cuts.  

It aims to maintain border and nuclear security; keep the FBI and federal prison system staffed; increase security at embassies in the wake of last year’s terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya; and provide the Forest Service with more money to fight wildfires. 

Specifically, the bill requires U.S. Customs and Border Protection to retain current staffing at existing funding levels, while maintaining 34,000 detention beds for suspected illegal immigrants. 

Just last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement released some illegal immigrants held at detention centers to save money because of the pending budget cuts. 

The bill would provide $2 billion more for diplomatic security a year after U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others were killed in a terrorist attack.

Ahead of what is expected to be a difficult wildfire season in the West, the GOP bill would provide $40 million more for the Forest Service to fight fires. 

It includes $363 million more than last year’s funding for nuclear security and $129 million more for FBI salaries. 

All of the increases would be made by shifting money around rather than adding to the overall total.

The bill does nothing to protect several Democratic priorities set to be cut by the sequester. The White House warned last month that 70,000 students would lose Head Start access under sequestration, which cuts $789 million from it and similar Department of Education programs.

The measure keeps in place a requirement that the U.S. Postal Service provide Saturday mail. The U.S. Postal Service announced it plans to discontinue Saturday letter delivery in the summer but may be unable to given that House appropriators are not backing down. 

Republicans would shift funds for the District of Columbia to pay for the presidential inauguration and give the Architect of the Capitol flexibility to continue repairing the Capitol Dome, which is crumbling. It also provides no funding for construction of the controversial Dwight Eisenhower memorial.

The bill includes full, detailed appropriations for the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, and to fund military construction, but it lacks detailed bills for domestic agencies.

In total, the bill includes $518 billion for defense, $2 billion more than President Obama requested this year but the same as in 2012. It assumes the 13 percent cut to non-exempt budget accounts called for by sequestration will occur.

The measure would extend the two-year pay freeze for federal workers. Obama has ordered a 0.5 percent increase in federal worker pay after March 27.

The bill is slated to come the House floor on Thursday and the Rules Committee will take it up on Tuesday.

“The legislation will avoid a government shutdown on March 27th, prioritize [defense] and veterans programs, and allow the Pentagon some leeway to do its best with the funding it has,” Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said in a statement.

Obama and House Democratic leaders have said a government shutdown should be avoided and do not appear inclined to hold up a continuing resolution set at the funding levels demanded by the sequester.

Obama last week strongly urged Congress to end its brinkmanship over a government shutdown, making it all but impossible for Democrats to try to use a shutdown as leverage to reverse the sequester.

Yet Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said she was disappointed with the GOP bill.

“It is extremely disappointing that the proposal would fund the remainder of the federal government’s critical services and investments for the American people under FY2012 plans and spending levels, enacted 15-18 months ago,” she said in a statement. 

Lowey, who said she is still “hopeful” an agreement on the sequester can be found, did not say whether she would support the bill.

Even though it does not contain policy changes favored by conservatives in the past — such as the defunding of Obama’s healthcare and financial reform laws — many conservatives in the House say they will support it.

So far only two — Reps. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) and Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) — are on record demanding the continuing resolution defund ObamaCare, even though the Club for Growth had threatened members who support a measure without such a defunding provision.

Senate Democrats are slated to discuss their own approach to the looming government shutdown on Tuesday.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has been advocating full appropriations bills for the entire government instead of just the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments.

One possibility, according to a Democratic source, is a 10-bill package that includes all the annual appropriation bills except those funding the financial services agencies and the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Those bills are most likely to cause delays because they control funding for the healthcare and financial reform laws. 

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip who represents a large number of government workers, has been fiercely critical in the past of efforts to freeze pay for federal employees such as the one included in the GOP resolution. 

The defense industry is also pushing for the defense appropriations bill, even though it cuts the overall topline funding for research and development $2.5 billion below last year’s level.

The push comes because the appropriations bill would provide funding for new projects, while a full-year continuing resolution would keep funding at last year’s levels.

“All my clients say this is worse than sequester,” one defense lobbyist said of a full-year continuing resolution (CR). “If you have a defense bill, we can manage sequester, but if you have a CR, it’s devastating.”

Defense contractor BAE Systems sent out federally mandated conditional layoff notices last week to more than 3,500 employees over potential Navy cuts, which the company said was due to the continuing resolution, not sequestration.

— Updated at 8:24 p.m. on Monday and 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday.

— Mike Lillis contributed to this report.