Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., second from left, walks to the podium to speak to reporters following the weekly Republican luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2015.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., second from left, walks to the podium to speak to reporters following the weekly Republican luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Susan Walsh/AP

Democrats Retreat In the Battle Over Defense Budget 'Gimmick'

An 'overstuffed' war fund is ok with Democrats in a defense policy bill but not in a spending bill, adding further uncertainty to a key measure already facing a veto threat.

Senate Democrats were against defense authorization before they were for it. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, their message is mixed: They fully support the troops, but they really don't like how Republicans are supporting the troops with contingency war funds.

Does that translate into a "no" vote or a "yes" vote? On the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets Pentagon policy, it's a "yes." On a Defense Department spending bill, it's a "no." The overseas contingency fund that Republicans are using to boost the Pentagon is acceptable to Democrats in a policy bill but not a spending bill.

Democrats overwhelmingly voted with Republicans on Tuesday to proceed to final passage on NDAA. But their support for the defense policy bill didn't stop them from spending most of the day railing against the measure's use of contingency funds to meet the president's budget request. Moreover, they expect President Obama to veto the bill anyway, and they believe they can muster enough votes to sustain it. "The votes aren't there to override," said Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

Tuesday's 83-15 vote saw only two Republicans voting against proceeding to final passage—GOP presidential hopefuls Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. (Of the other Republican primary contenders, Sen. Marco Rubio was a no-show and hawkish Lindsey Graham was a "yes.") Thirteen Democrats voted to block the measure from going forward, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who also opposed the bill in committee.

Some Democrats switched their positions. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida told National Journal two hours before Tuesday's vote that he intended to vote "no" on proceeding because the defense policy bill includes a war fund gimmick. He opposed the bill in committee for the same reason.

"This is a screwball way of trying to use budgetary fakery. And if they get away with it this year, then next year it'll be more of the same," he said. "I don't have to show my bona fides. I'm a veteran, and I've been there for defense."

After lunch, Nelson voted "yes" to allow the NDAA to proceed to final passage. So did Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, who, like Nelson, voted against the measure in committee. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, the fourth "no" vote in committee, also voted "yes" Tuesday.

"Our Democratic colleagues are sort of conflicted," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn observed. "They would threaten to filibuster the defense authorization bill, and now it seems like they're backing off of that."

Indeed, they have. Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain said before Tuesday's vote that he is "guardedly optimistic" that the NDAA will pass this week, although he says he takes all threats seriously. After the overwhelming vote in favor of proceeding to a final vote, he should feel better. Senate Democrats are waiting to get past the popular defense policy bill so they can stage their real fight on a defense spending bill.

If that's confusing, Minority Whip Dick Durbin sympathizes. "It will be very clear when the appropriations bill comes up. It's a little fuzzier on [defense] reauthorization," he admitted.

Moments before the procedural vote on NDAA, Democratic leaders railed against Republicans' unwillingness to sit down with them and talk through a new budget. "There has been no conversation with the White House. None with us," said Reid. "Legislation is the art of compromise, which they seem to have forgotten."

They intend to show how angry they are, just not right now. "I'm voting 'no'" on the defense procedural motion, said Durbin, just moments before he walked onto the Senate floor and voted "yes."

"I'm voting 'no,' for sure," said Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, who did the same.

It turns out, according to both Schumer's and Durbin's aides, that the two senators were not talking about that day's vote. They were talking about the defense spending bill that will see Senate votes next week.

Other Democrats have said all along that the NDAA is too important for them to give it the thumbs down on the Senate floor, even though they are fully aware that it faces a veto threat that won't be overridden. "There are very important policies in there, important to my state. The A-10 … planes fly out of Selfridge Air Force Base [in Michigan]," Stabenow said. "I've been the leader in making sure that we continue to have the A-10 fighting planes." 

Stabenow said there are "very legitimate concerns" with the gimmick that gives extra money to the Pentagon but no other federal agencies. "It's basically being funded by deficit spending," she said.

But Stabenow said that argument will ring truer during debate on a spending bill. That objection won't be against defense spending per se, she assured, but against the entire process. "It's not about voting against the defense appropriations, it's about not starting the process on appropriations on anything," she said. "If it was another bill we'd do the same thing."

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