Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., center, with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., back left, and Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan, right, speaks to reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill, on March 12, 2015.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., center, with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., back left, and Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan, right, speaks to reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill, on March 12, 2015. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

In Today’s Congress, Everyone’s a National Security Hostage Taker

The fight over defense spending has echoes of the ‘unpatriotic’ rhetoric that shaped the Iraq War vote.

Both parties are weak on defense, don’t care about the troops or their families, and are holding national security hostage to their politics — or so you might conclude from the charges and counter-charges surrounding the must-pass defense bills being considered on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., ranking member of the Armed Services Committee and himself a veteran, said such allegations helped secure the votes to invade Iraq, votes many now say they regret.

“I think the outcome would’ve been very different back then if we had more of a debate about the true cost  … if we thought the U.S. would be on a war footing for over a decade and American taxpayers would on the hook for trillions of dollars and that we would perhaps even contribute by actions to new threats that we are facing today,” Reed said. “It was implied, sometimes stated, that opposing the Iraq War meant you didn’t support the troops or were weak on national security … We’re hearing echoes of that rhetoric again.”

This time, the heated rhetorical battle is over the GOP majority’s effort to skirt budget caps in the 2016 bills by beefing up the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations funding, a war chest not subject to the caps. The White House, Pentagon, and even Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., oppose this as a “gimmick.”

Reed had proposed an amendment to the defense authorization bill, or NDAA, that would essentially fence off the Republicans’ $38 billion OCO boost until lawmakers found a solution to the caps enacted in the Budget Control Act of 2011. His amendment was voted down along party lines on Tuesday afternoon.

That likely ends Senate Democrats’ efforts to block the authorization bill, leaving it to President Obama, who has vowed to veto the “must-pass” behemoth if it includes the OCO funding mechanism and “locks in sequestration.”

Instead, Hill Democrats have drawn a different line: the defense spending bill, which also contains the OCO provision, and unlike the NDAA, actually appropriates the funds. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said last week party leaders would advise their caucus to block attempts to proceed to the spending measure.

Vowed Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.: “Republicans should be absolutely crystal clear about one thing: Democrats will not vote to put a defense appropriations bill on the floor that uses accounting trickery and budget gimmicks to fund our troops.”

But on Tuesday morning, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee marked up the spending bill in a meeting that lasted no more than a dozen minutes. Durbin and others criticized the funding mechanism, but ultimately allowed it to be sent to the full committee. The bill recommends $575.9 billion, including $86.9 billion in the OCO spending — up from last year’s $64-billion OCO fund.

“We need a new budget deal,” Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he wants the defense authorization bill wrapped this week in order to move on to the spending bill. Asked by reporters whether it’s time for a budget conference with the House, responded, “No, of course not.”

On Tuesday morning, his office distributed a list of news articles under the heading, “Democrats’ ‘Stand’ Against Our Troops,” along with the number of military personnel based in various states, many with competitive races coming up in 2016.

The NDAA “contains exactly the same level of funding that President Obama requested,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “But some in the Democratic leadership … seem to think it’s okay to hold our troops and their families ransom.”

McCain, who wrote a Monday op-ed slamming the White House’s veto threat, bristled at Reed’s suggestion that such rhetoric was dangerous.

“There is not the remotest connection,” the Arizona senator and veteran told Defense One. “2002 was whether we go to war or not. This is whether we’re gonna fund defense appropriately or not, which is the best way to avoid war.”

Just a few months ago, McCain lamented the OCO-stuffing. “I would much rather go through the normal authorization and appropriations process and I think most members would,” he told Defense One in March. “This is kind of a dodge.”

Now he is saying that any fight over OCO belongs within the debate over the appropriations bill. “That’s where the money is,” he said. “That’s why it’s so disgraceful and disappointing what they’re doing on an authorization bill.”

But he said he will support a fattened-up OCO in the spending bill as well — because Congress is incapable of finding a solution and thus “it’s the only option I have” when, as he argued on the floor, “the world is on fire.”

“Do I support the repeal of sequestration, yes. Do I support ways of fixing this problem, absolutely. But with the hand we are dealt right now it would be obscene for us to use that as an excuse not to defend the nation,” he said.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., put the onus on Republicans for finding a way to remove the budget caps. “OCO stands for outrageous cop out,” he said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, as both sides claim to speak for the troops, the Pentagon has made clear that it would far prefer to see the budget caps lifted rather than OCO bulked up. For several years now, a steady stream of military brass has trooped to Hill hearings and implored Congress to lift the caps. Pouring money into OCO, which is intended to be emergency year-to-year funding, doesn’t allow the kind of longer-term planning that would allow money to be spent more wisely.

Top military personnel officials noted at a Defense One event Tuesday morning that lawmakers often criticize the military but themselves create budget uncertainty. Last month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter called the OCO “budget gimmick” a “road to nowhere.”

McCain called Carter’s comments “sophistry.”

“You would rather have none than one year?” he said. “I want more than one year, a lot of us want more than one year, but to cut off funding and have none for this next year is dangerous rhetoric.”