Washington's Fall Agenda: Lawmakers near finish line on defense appropriations

Washington's Fall Agenda: Lawmakers near finish line on defense appropriations
© Photo illustration/Nicole Vas

Congress and the White House are facing a number of important issues this fall. But the clock is ticking with the November midterms looming and the end of the year fast approaching. Here's a look at Washington's agenda and the key stories The Hill will be watching in the months ahead.

The Senate and the House in September will attempt to merge competing defense appropriations bills once the House returns from its August recess after Labor Day.

It’s an effort to get the Pentagon funded before the start of the fiscal year for the first time in years.

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The House passed its version of the $675 billion Pentagon spending bill in June, while the Senate followed in August.

But the Senate’s bill was combined with the spending bill for the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services, potentially complicating bicameral negotiations since the Senate wants to keep the two bills married.

The Pentagon, along with most of the rest of the government, has started every one of the last nine fiscal years on a stopgap funding measure known as a continuing resolution (CR).

Funding the military that way gives the Pentagon a major headache, as it cannot start new programs under a CR.

This year, Congress made strides in getting the Pentagon funded on time by passing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) before the start of the fiscal year for the first time in 20 years. President TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE signed the bill into law earlier this month, marking the earliest the bill has become law in 40 years.

But the NDAA is a policy bill, not a spending bill, meaning the dollar numbers it authorizes can’t become reality until Congress passes the finalized appropriations bill.

“It is now essential that we follow this bill with matching appropriations before the beginning of the fiscal year,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Details on defense spending bill | NATO chief dismisses talk of renaming HQ for McCain | North Korea warns US over cyber allegations Armed Services chairman laments 'fringe elements in politics' Overnight Defense: Mattis dismisses Woodward's book as 'fiction' | House moves to begin defense bill talks with Senate | Trump warns Syria after attack on rebel areas | Trump, South Korean leader to meet at UN MORE (R-Texas) said in a statement after the NDAA was signed into law.

Congress, though, is facing a legislative time crunch, as it only has until Sept. 30 to pass legislation to avoid a government shutdown, which would be the third of the year.

Another complicating factor is Trump’s threat last month to shut down the government if he does not get funding for his proposed wall on the southern border.

GOP leadership had signaled they likely need to use a CR to keep part of the government, including the Department of Homeland Security, open past September.

That would allow leadership to punt a fight over funding Trump’s controversial U.S.-Mexico border wall until after the midterm elections. Defense hawks are crossing their fingers Pentagon funding will be able to get through regardless.

‘Space Force’ 

The Pentagon is also facing questions about Trump’s proposed “Space Force.”

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Air Force outlines plan for biggest force since end of Cold War | Trump admin slashes refugee cap | Mattis accuses Russia of meddling in Macedonia's NATO bid It’s long past time to tie the president’s hands Mattis warns of Russian meddling in Macedonia's bid for NATO: report MORE and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford at a media briefing this week said they do not yet have a cost estimate for establishing the new branch.

“We don’t have a full cost right now,” Dunford said. But the chairman noted that he met with key Pentagon leaders the day before to work out details on standing up a command structure.

President Trump in June ordered the Defense Department to create a sixth military branch for space, though the department must work with Congress on such an endeavor. 

Vice President Pence followed up by announcing in August at the Pentagon that the administration will seek to create the Space Force as the sixth branch of the military, to be established by 2020.

He did not give a cost estimated to stand up the new military arm, but called for Congress to initially authorize $8 billion for the move in next year’s defense spending bill.

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters afterward that he assumes the desired Space Force would cost “billions” to establish, but would not have a more concrete number until November.

The Senate is also a potential impediment to a new military branch for space.

The House GOP has been largely supportive of the Space Force idea, but skeptics in the Senate from both parties have raised concerns about its cost and potentially adding to bureaucratic overhead at the Pentagon.

Afghanistan

Also on the radar is the ongoing Afghanistan War, now in its 17th year.

The Pentagon maintains that about 14,000 U.S. military personnel — though other estimates puts that number at 16,0000 — are currently in Afghanistan to counter terrorist groups including the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as to train and assist Afghan forces.

More than 3,000 troops were added to the fight after Trump announced in August 2017 a new strategy to turn around the war. The strategy also took away a timeline for withdrawal — leaving Afghanistan is now based on conditions on the ground — loosened some rules of engagement and ramped up pressure on regional players such as Pakistan.

Top national security officials had advised Trump that in order to push through a stalemate and keep the region stable, he should not withdraw from the country, something he had campaigned on.

But a year later the war has seen little progress, and Trump in a Reuters interview in August said he is “constantly reviewing” the situation in Afghanistan.

Mattis, meanwhile, said this week that the U.S. military remains in the 17-year war “in order to ensure America’s security.”