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Another government shutdown is possible. What's at stake for the military

March 16, 2017 (Photo Credit: Jon Elswick/AP)
WASHINGTON — Congress could cause a partial government shutdown next month, with proposed defense spending at the center of a looming feud between Capitol Hill and the White House.

The Trump administration on Thursday unveiled its proposed fiscal 2018 budget for all federal programs and a plan to fund the last few months of fiscal 2017, which ends Sept. 30. And while Republicans control both houses of Congress, Democratic party leaders have threatened to allow a shutdown unless some compromises are made. Should that happen, it could disrupt military operations both at home and overseas, and delay ambitious plans to recapitalize the force.

Currently, the Defense Department and most other federal programs are running off a continuing budget resolution that expires at the end of April. The White House plan includes a $25 billion boost in base defense spending for the final five months of the current fiscal year, and at least $18 billion in cuts to non-defense programs over the same period.

The extra money is for "urgent warfighting readiness needs," President Trump said in an accompanying letter to Congress. It's also necessary, he says, to begin a "sustained effort to rebuild the U.S. armed forces," and to address shortfalls in everything from personnel and training to equipment maintenance and munitions.

Standing in the way is a new agreement from congressional Democrats to lift the defense spending caps known as sequestration — without corresponding spending increases for non-military programs. Party leaders have refused to do that for the last six years.

To overcome Senate procedural rules, Republicans would need at least eight senators from outside their party to approve any spending plan.  

Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., indicated that any “poison pill riders such as defunding Planned Parenthood, building a border wall, or starting a deportation force” will force Democrats to oppose Republican budget plans, even if that means a partial government shutdown.

The White House's fiscal 2017 proposal does include $1.4 billion for the first phases of building a wall along the Mexican border.

What does this mean for the Pentagon, and rank-and-file military personnel and their families? Earlier this month, House lawmakers voted 371-48 in favor of a $578 billion spending bill to keep the military operating through September, roughly matching the White House's request but allotting the funding differently — and excluding proposed cuts to non-defense programs.

That measure is currently stalled in the Senate. 

The last extended government shutdown occurred in October 2013, resulting in unpaid furloughs for civilian workers employed by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. That disrupted some basic services on military bases and installations, and delayed implementation of some military pay and benefits.

The White House spending plan for the remainder of 2017 also includes $5 billion in new funding for overseas contingency operations, including $1.4 billion for the mission in Iraq and Syria, and $1.1 billion for ongoing operations in Afghanistan. Another $2 billion for be set aside for a "flexible fund" for the war against Islamic State militants, to "maximize the impact of U.S. counter-terrorism activities and operations."

A partial shutdown this year would not affect VA operations, since its full 2017 budget was approved by Congress last fall. 

The administration's fiscal 2018 budget plan also includes a stark divide between defense and non-defense spending, with a $52 billion boost for the military and $64 billion in proposed cuts to the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services, and other federal programs.

But lawmakers must resolve spending plans for the current fiscal year before fully engaging in that debate. 

 
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.
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