A newly unveiled deal to reopen the federal government also bodes well for a potential agreement on an overdue 2018 defense spending bill, Senate Republicans and Democrats said Monday.
The chamber agreed to a measure to keep the government funded until Feb. 8 and, as Democrats demanded, to consider renewing protections under the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for about 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
The defense budget has been tied up in the immigration debate and the DACA impasse that partially shuttered the government over the weekend. Senators said the breakthrough Monday could smooth the way for Congress to raise 2018 spending caps and pass an appropriations bill for the Pentagon.
“We are a step closer,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Democrats “are going to be a little easier to talk to. It’s just my opinion.”
Caps under the Budget Control Act are still set to slash defense as well as non-defense federal discretionary spending this year. The Pentagon base budget would be held to $549 billion under the BCA, meaning the defense spending level requested by President Trump in May would be cut by $54 billion and the level proposed by the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress last month by more than $80 billion.
Lawmakers must raise the cap with new legislation before passing an annual appropriations bill, or be forced to dramatically scale back plans to build up the military. Violating the cap with higher spending would trigger the arbitrary, across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.
“It was not going to happen until we got this resolved,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who is also an Armed Services member. “This had to be resolved today to get us to the next point and show good faith in terms of negotiations on DACA.”
Rounds said it “absolutely” improves the prospects for a defense budget deal.
For weeks, lawmakers in the House and Senate have been close to an agreement on what the topline figure for defense spending this year should be. Now, Congress could have three more weeks to finalize the figures and settle the other issues holding it up.
Republican defense hawks want to see a hike for the Pentagon to counter what they see as a readiness crisis in the military, while Democrats generally support increased defense spending but want equal boosts for non-defense priorities.
“The leaders are having those [discussions]. They are very close, those could have been done weeks ago accept for DACA,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee.
Alexander and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., a Senate Armed Services member, were among a bipartisan group of more than 20 senators who met and held negotiations to break the weekend immigration impasse that shut down the government.
Peters said he believes the stopgap deal announced by the Senate Republican and Democrat leadership on the chamber floor around noon showed new promise for an agreement on defense.
“Yeah I do, and if I were to say what the takeaway is … we are talking in a bipartisan way, in a very constructive fruitful way, and I hope that translates into just the tenor of the Senate,” Peters said.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq combat veteran who lost both legs in a helicopter crash, torched President Trump for playing politics with the military in a speech over the weekend, but on Monday said she believes Congress can raise both defense and non-defense spending.
The hike in military spending is needed for the Navy, after it suffered deadly at-sea collisions last year, and for U.S. forces in the Pacific that stand ready to defend against North Korea and its growing nuclear missile threat, Duckworth said.
“They need a regular process so they can stand up their readiness in case there is some sort of an action there, but I need money for my community health centers,” she said. “So, I think we’ve got a good chance and if we can just encourage this massive movement of moderates coming together, we’ve got a shot.”