Dems see new leverage in end-of-year spending fight with Trump

Dems see new leverage in end-of-year spending fight with Trump
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Democrats believe they have an extra bit of leverage in the government-funding fight this winter: the GOP’s fear of cuts to the Pentagon.

If Congress doesn't agree to a new spending deal, strict limits on defense and nondefense spending will be reintroduced under the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Congress can't use its normal stopgap funding measures to avoid the caps, either, meaning that lawmakers can’t pass a continuing resolution that simply keeps the existing flow going without running into the stricter budgetary ceilings.

Democrats and Republicans alike oppose the ceilings, but there’s an added pain for the GOP given its ownership of the White House and Congress.

President Trump also has repeatedly touted his effort to strengthen the Pentagon and will want to avoid any cuts on his watch.

Because Republicans will need Democratic votes to get a bill through the Senate — and quite possibly through the House, the minority party thinks it has added reasons for confidence this fall. Congress must pass a new funding measure by Dec. 8 to prevent a shutdown.

“It works in Democrats’ favor because it forces Republicans to come to the table,” said a Democratic House aide.

If Congress fails to reach a new deal and relies on another stopgap measure, the sequestration enshrined in the budget caps will kick in starting in mid-January with across-the-board cuts. Defense spending will be scaled back by $2 billion, and nondefense spending will get slashed by $3 billion. 

That would be $72 billion fewer for defense than House Republicans just passed in their 2018 spending package, but $5 billion more than they approved for nondefense spending — numbers that work to the advantage of Democrats.

Outside conservatives acknowledged this reality hands some leverage to the minority.

“It definitely strengthens the hands of the Democrats, because appropriations are one of those areas that cannot be accomplished without the help of Democrats,” said budget expert Romina Boccia of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

House Republicans in particular are split between fiscal and defense hawks. 

The fiscal hawks, who include members of the Freedom Caucus, want increased spending in areas such as defense to be offset with cuts in nondefense or mandatory spending.

Defense hawks are more concerned about increasing military funding.

That dynamic, said Boccia, plays into Democrats’ hands.

“They will demand a package that will be much more favorable to them, which will peel off a number of fiscal conservatives,” she said.

Democrats tend to agree, and stand willing to exploit a dynamic made even more dramatic by the potency of the new spending limits that would otherwise become law in January.

“There has always been an alliance between defense hawks who want to increase defense spending, and Democrats who want to boost key middle-class domestic programs,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

Under President Obama, Democrats insisted on a parity principle, where every dollar increase to defense caps would be matched with nondefense spending. 

When congressional leaders agreed to the 2017 spending deal in April, Republicans won a victory for breaking the parity principle, adding more to defense than nondefense.

Democrats now hope to restore parity in the upcoming battle.

“Sequestration isn’t good for either side of the ledger, so we’re hopeful that both sides can work together, as we’ve done in the past, to reach a good bipartisan agreement to eliminate these harmful cuts,” the Senate aide added.

Without a new deal in December, the government would shut down.

But if lawmakers only agree to a stopgap to prevent a shutdown, those ceilings will become reality, providing a cut to defense spending but an increase to nondefense spending.