CHN: Fight over War Spending Comes to a Head in the Senate

The fight over the Pentagon’s war spending account came to a head in the Senate on Thursday, June 9 as the body continued debate on its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (S. 2943). Senate Armed Services Chair John McCain (R-AZ) introduced an amendment that would authorize adding $18 billion to defense funding through the Pentagon’s uncapped Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account for additional fighter jets and tanks, maintenance and training, and other purposes outside of the overseas operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, which is the primary purpose for OCO. Advocates strongly opposed the move, which would not only give the Pentagon billions of dollars it didn’t ask for, it would break the spending level caps agreed to in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 and violate the “parity” principle of providing equal relief from sequestration cuts for defense and non-defense programs.
To counter Senator McCain’s amendment and restore parity, Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI) offered an amendment co-sponsored by Ranking Appropriations Committee Member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) that would authorize an addition $18 billion to the OCO account for non-defense programs. This funding included, among other things, $1.9 billion to combat the Zika virus, $1.1 billion to address the heroin and opioid crisis, $1.9 billion for water infrastructure, including a grant to Flint, Michigan, $3.2 billion for infrastructure and money to fully implement the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Both amendments failed to advance on near-party line votes. The Senate is expected to pass its authorization bill early this week. While the authorization bill sets defense policy rather than actually approving spending, advocates fear that if Sen. McCain’s amendment were approved, it could translate to actual dollars when the chamber takes up its defense appropriations act. The defense spending bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee in May does not include this additional $18 billion.

However, the House versions of these two bills do include this bump to the Pentagon’s base budget. In a similar move, the House Appropriations Committee approved a FY17 defense spending bill that would take nearly $16 billion from OCO for weapons programs and other uses to supplement the Pentagon’s base budget, leaving OCO funded only through April 2017. The House-passed defense authorization bill contains a similar OCO-to-base funding shift for $18 billion. Reports are that Sen. McCain didn’t approve of underfunding the war account, so he choose to try to add the addition money directly to OCO. The full House is expected to take up its appropriations bill this week.

Advocates like those at the National Priorities Project continue to point out that excessive Pentagon spending takes money away from human needs programs that could be funded instead.

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