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GOP, Dems dig in for defense fight

GOP, Dems dig in for defense fight
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Democrats and Republicans in Congress are digging in for a fight on defense spending that is unlikely to be resolved until after the election.

House Republicans are seeking $18 billion in additional funding for the Pentagon. Democrats and the Obama administration reject that hike, arguing it would unravel a larger budget deal that links defense spending to non-defense spending.

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A final resolution is likely impossible until Congress and the White House can reach a deal on spending for the entire government for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

“I don't think they can reach a resolution on that $18 billion difference in funding until they reach some sort of a budget deal on the overall federal budget," said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said. 

Little is likely to happen until after November.

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“I think there’s a small chance (but still a chance) that an NDAA conference report could be done in September and get vetoed by the President, but I think the final [NDAA] and defense appropriations [bill] will all get finalized after the election,” said Justin Johnson, defense budget expert at The Heritage Foundation. 

“That’s not how it should be done, but that’s what the political landscape looks like to me,” he said.

Congress must approve a new government-funding bill before the end of September to keep the government open. Most expect a short-term resolution, either into December or next year.

“We're going to start the fiscal year, October 1st on a continuing resolution. It will be at least until December,” said Harrison. 

Harrison thinks GOPs and Dems will likely work out a new budget deal that raises defense and non-defense spending. 

“I think after the election, folks will come back to Washington and they will cut a deal, and this will all get resolved in the lame duck session,” he said. 

Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, predicts the omnibus will include additional money for defense in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), or war fund, which isn't subject to spending caps. 

“More OCO is going to win,” she said. “Period. Take it Vegas. It’s done. It won’t be as high as the GOP is hoping, but it’s going to be more.”

Gordon Adams, a professor at American University who oversaw national security budgets at the Office of Management and Budget in the 1990s, agrees that more defense money will be stuffed into OCO as with previous years. 

“This is no longer a process they are concealing,” he said. “It’s as open as a house of ill-repute with a red light in front. They’ll avoid the question of caps and sequester by simply adding more money in OCO.”

The sequester would introduce new budgetary caps on defense and non-defense spending that would cut into projected spending by $100 billion over four years, something both parties would like to avoid. 

Pentagon leaders and Democratic lawmakers have warned that without raising non-defense spending, too, the 2015 budget deal will unravel and sequester would come back automatically. 

But experts say despite those dire warnings, it is doubtful that sequestration will happen. 

Harrison says sequestration can only be triggered if a bill appropriates more than the budget levels reached in the 2015 deal allow, and since the Republicans would take the $18 billion from OCO, which isn't subject to caps, it wouldn't happen. 

Even if sequestration were to come to fruition, the Pentagon will find a way to live within its means, Eaglen said.

“We saw it in 2013,” she said. “It’s not ideal, but it’s not devastating.” 

Johnson said he doesn't think there will be a new budget agreement like the one in 2015, and agrees a boost in the overseas account that would give the Pentagon more money overall is more likely. 

He suggests the final deal will also include more money for non-defense spending as a concession to Democrats.

“Unfortunately, it probably won’t be enough and it will probably be paired to some degree with non-defense spending as well,” he said.