October 12, 2010 — Work on the 2011 military budget has ground to a halt, probably until December, so members of the U.S. Congress could go home and run for re-election.
Due Sept. 30, the $726 billion spending plan, as usual, is late. So for now, the U.S. military is operating on an extension of the $693 billion 2010 defense budget.
Thanks to bitter fighting between Democrats pushing an agenda of change and Republicans determined to block it, neither the Defense Appropriations bill nor any of the other 11 annual appropriations bills that would fund the U.S. government for 2011 has been passed.
And the Defense Authorization bill that sets military policy as well as spending levels is also stalled. Progress ceased after Democrats in the Senate added amendments to the bill to repeal a ban on gays serving in the military, permit abortions in military hospitals and create a way for some illegal immigrants to become citizens.
Republicans, who opposed all three measures, blocked the bill from coming to a vote.
It’s been like this all year, beginning with fierce and protracted battles over health care and finance reform, and ending with not-yet-finished fights over tax cuts, food safety, curbs on carbon emissions, an extension of unemployment benefits and a dozen other issues.
Defense spending is just one victim of ideological gridlock.
Republicans, of course, blame the Democrats.
As the Senate prepared to pass the “continuing resolution” that temporarily funds the government in lieu of regular appropriations bills, Sen. John McCain, senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointed across the aisle.
“The simple fact that we’re considering this continuing resolution is evidence of the majority’s inability to lead,” the Arizona senator said.
But Democrats fired right back. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said Republicans set a record in 2010 by using the threat of a filibuster 101 times to prevent votes on legislation. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to end debate and force a vote on a piece of legislation.
And under Senate practice, no debate need actually occur. Just the threat of unending debate — a filibuster — and the lack of 60 votes to overcome it is enough to kill a bill.
Senate Republicans “use the filibuster to impede progress, then they lament how things don’t get done,” Menendez told Voice of America.
To a certain extent, the warring parties were posturing for partisan advantage in advance of the Nov. 2 election. If Republicans can pick up 39 seats in the House and 10 seats in the Senate, they will take control of the Congress.
Lawmakers are scheduled to go back to work Nov. 15, but then take the next week off for Thanksgiving.
Work on the defense appropriations and authorization bills could resume then, “but that presumes that the dust has settled from what takes place on Nov. 2,” a senior House aide said.
A number of realistic developments could still prevent progress, he said. Narrow election margins could mean that recounts continue into late November, leaving future control of the House or Senate undecided. In that case, with the question of who will control Congress next year still unanswered, Republicans are unlikely to cooperate on the 2011 spending bills or any other legislation.
The same may be true if Republicans could win control of one or both houses of Congress. They may decide not to let legislation that the Democrats drafted pass this year because they will be in a position to rewrite in when the next Congress begins work in January, said Travis Sharp, a defense budget analyst at the Center for a New American Security.
In that case, the current continuing resolution would likely be extended.
Even if the Democrats retain control of the House and Senate, the Republicans have little incentive to yield to them on the defense bills.
“Presidential campaigning for 2012 begins in November, literally as soon as midterm elections are over,” Sharp said.
Republicans will be looking for issues they can use in the campaign, among them, maintaining the ban on gays in the military and blocking immigration reform.
Perhaps the most optimistic outcome would be “a more closely divided House and Senate,” Sharp said. “The impact for defense legislation is that you would see much cleaner authorization and appropriations bills.”
The reason: Members in both houses generally support the military and are generous about spending money on it. But the defense bills attract controversial and not necessarily germane amendments because the bills are considered “must pass” legislation. So measures that can’t pass on their own sometimes slip through as amendments to defense bills.
With more equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, particularly in the Senate, there would be less chance of getting enough votes to pass controversial amendments, so fewer would be attached to the defense bills, Sharp said.Related: