WASHINGTON ― On Congress’ agenda when members return from the July 4 recess: late-arriving defense spending and policy bills as well as President Joe Biden’s pick for Navy secretary, among other Pentagon nominees.
Overshadowing all the military-focused activity is work on a $1.9 trillion infrastructure bill and a reconciliation bill that package other Democratic economic priorities; both face resistance from lead Republicans. At the same time, the U.S. is on track to hit the debt ceiling, and Congress will have to raise it or risk default.
In a letter to fellow Democrats on Friday, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said he intends for the Senate to consider both the bipartisan infrastructure legislation and the budget resolution that unlocks the filibuster-proof reconciliation process. He warned he might delay the August recess to cram in all the work.
“Please be advised that time is of the essence and we have a lot of work to do. Senators should be prepared for the possibility of working long nights, weekends, and remaining in Washington into the previously-scheduled August state work period,” Schumer, of New York, said in the letter.
The House and Senate return July 12 to a four-week work period, after which is a scheduled recess from Aug. 6 through Aug. 30. Then lawmakers return for a week, followed by a weeklong Labor Day recess.
The crowded schedule and partisan dynamics mean appropriations bills, which are supposed to be done by Oct. 1, are unlikely to pass in time. That means Congress would have to resort to one or more continuing resolutions to avoid a government shutdown.
If Democrats are unable to finish work on their priority bills quickly, defense items that are less of a priority for the Biden administration may have to fight for floor time in the fall, predicted Arnold Punaro, a former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director and now National Defense Industrial Association board chair.
“In presidential transition years, we’re always going to be running late, running slow, but I will tell you it’s as big a backup as I’ve ever seen it,” Punaro said. “So I think we’re looking at defense bills ― both authorization and appropriations ― being delayed and getting done, if they get done, between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Between now and then, the top lines for defense and domestic discretionary spending “will be a knock-down slugfest” between Republicans and Democrats in both chambers, Punaro said. Republicans, generally, are displeased that Biden’s $1.5 trillion budget proposal raises defense spending by 1.6 percent and nondefense by 16 percent.
The House Appropriations Committee is set to mark up the fiscal 2022 defense spending bill on Tuesday. On June 29, the defense subpanel approved the $706 billion defense bill, which tracks with Biden’s proposed top line but shuffled spending to add a second Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, among other tweaks.
In the Senate, where the 50-50 party split complicates passage of individual appropriations bills, Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., hopes to begin markups of its 12 appropriations bills in July, but that process doesn’t appear to have begun.
Senate Republicans negotiating spending levels for 2022 say they are willing to accept Biden’s $1.5 trillion price tag for discretionary spending, provided more of those funds are allocated toward defense spending.
“My goal is to get more money for defense. We live in a tough world,” Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the chamber’s lead Republican appropriator, told The Hill last month. “The allocations will shift around, but at the end of the day there’s going to be a struggle for national security.”
Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee offered a defense bill designed to shore up support from progressive Democrats ― who have pushed for defense cuts ― by including language to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and mandate a $15 minimum wage for federal contractors.
With Republicans unlikely to vote for the bill, lead Democrats will need unity in light of their narrow House majority to ensure it does not fail. A partisan fight over the top line has been brewing for months, as key conservatives have called for a 3-5 percent increase above inflation.
It’s unclear when the House’s defense appropriations bill will head to the floor, but it would be late July at the earliest, if not after the August recess.
If recent practice holds, the partisan fighting over the size of individual appropriations bills this summer is the prelude to negotiations between the White House and Congress for a final, all-encompassing omnibus, just before the Christmas recess.
Biden’s Navy secretary nominee, Carlos Del Toro, is set to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee with four other nominees on Tuesday. He comes amid reports that lawmakers wrangling with the administration have holds on Air Force secretary nominee Frank Kendall and on Susanna Blume, the nominee for director of the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office.
Of the 61 key jobs from Department of Defense civilians that require Senate confirmation, only six have been confirmed, and 10 nominees are awaiting Senate floor action.
Of the 10 nominees awaiting SASC confirmation hearings, it’s unclear how the panel will squeeze them this work period, with work on its annual defense policy bill due to start, Punaro said.
SASC announced last week it will start to mark up its FY22 National Defense Authorization Act on July 19, with the entire committee marking up the full bill in a closed session on July 21. All but the readiness and personnel sessions are to be closed to the public.
The House Armed Services Committee plans to straddle the August recess with its NDAA markups, starting on July 28 and 29 before its marathon markup of the final bill on Sept. 1.
On the defense policy bill, legislation to remove sexual assault and other major prosecutions from a commander’s authority are expected to feature. So are arguments over the culture war issue of critical race theory ― against the wishes of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash.
“I don’t see anything that needs to be put in our bill one way or the other,” Smith told reporters July 1. “That’s an administration ― that’s the DoD, and people can fight that out over there. We’re going to try to avoid legislating on that issue.”
Work on the authorizing bills may converge with efforts in Congress to reclaim war powers from the president by repealing the 1991 and 2002 war authorizations for Iraq. One of the sponsors of the Senate legislation, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he hopes to make it an amendment to the NDAA.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to receive a classified briefing on Monday ahead of a markup on July 20 or thereabouts.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.