WASHINGTON: House Republicans may have lost the fight by failing to push through a $750 billion defense budget during a nearly 24-hour markup session that ended Thursday morning, but they might just win the war.
The House Armed Services Committee voted 33 to 24 just after dawn to send their $733 billion defense policy bill to the full House. But divisions within the Democratic caucus, and support for the higher budget topline among both parties in the Senate, make the odds of the House version surviving through the summer a long shot — as even HASC’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Adam Smith, has effectively admitted.
Republicans lost this battle for a higher budget number, said Rick Berger, a former Senate Budget Committee hand now at the American Enterprise Institute, but “I think they’ll certainly win the war.”
“If $17 billion is the price of passage on the House floor, Pelosi will pay it, providing she gets parity with non-defense discretionary [spending],” Berger continued. In the end, it’s likely there just aren’t enough pro-defense Democrats to pass the bill on their own — since the party’s left wing thinks $733 billion is too high — and they’ll need Republican support.
Even if the $733 figure does pass the House, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed their version of a $750 billion bill by a 25-2 vote with broad bipartisan support, and there is no real opposition in the rest of the Senate to the higher number.
Ranking HASC member Mac Thornberry, who opposed the House version, said “I worry that we talk about this like it’s just numbers we’re pulling out of the air. These are real things. An aircraft carrier gets delayed a year if $733 billion is the way it comes out.”
But HASC chairman Adam Smith held firm on the lower figure, saying the Pentagon had been planning for months to fund the Pentagon at $733 billion, only to have the White House add the $17 billion at the last minute.
Significantly, Republicans also lost a series of votes to keep funding for a low-yield submarine launched nuclear-tipped missile, a weapon Smith and the Democrats said is unnecessary, and lowers the threshold for a nuclear exchange. The committee also rejected an amendment introduced by Thornberry to put the $17 billion back into the bill, bringing the topline up to $750 billion.
Smith signaled earlier this week, however, that he likely didn’t have the votes either in the House or Senate to win either fight — neither the topline nor the nukes. During a breakfast roundtable with reporters earlier this week, he conceded, “you know, I can count and I don’t think I have the votes to change [nuclear] policy, but what I’ve tried to do this year is to force that debate to have a discussion. And so, we’re going to have that argument and I don’t know how it’s going to come out of committee, but we’ll live with the result and move forward.”
Now that the measure is heading to the full House, Smith and his Democratic allies will be tasked with forging a wider coalition with progressives who are skeptical of more Pentagon funding, while facing stiff Republican opposition.
Later this summer, the House and Senate will come together on a compromise draft that should be ready by the fall.