Senate appropriators on Tuesday backed plans for $576 billion in defense spending in fiscal 2016, mostly in line with House lawmakers' funding plans and keeping in place policies that have already invited presidential veto threats.
The plan passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense panel without opposition from Democrats, but could serve as the first major showdown in the Senate over the issue of looming spending caps.
President Obama has insisted that future increases in defense spending must be matched with other domestic funding raises, and that the budget bills must include a repeal of spending caps outlined in the 2011 Budget Control Act.
But Republican leaders in Congress have instead offered budget plans that leave those caps in place and boost military spending through the overseas war fund. The Senate plan would transfer $36.5 billion from base defense spending to the contingency accounts "to meet the overall defense funding levels … while avoiding sequestration."
Democrats in both chambers have promised to fight any plan that uses that approach. They will have their chance in the House later this week, when a similar appropriations plan comes to a full chamber vote, and in the Senate as early as next week.
The House has already considered several appropriations bills this year, but the Senate has not. Whether Democrats scuttle debate on the issue or go along with GOP plans could well set the stage for the rest of the federal budget, and possibly a government shutdown this fall if a compromise can't be reached.
Republicans have all but dared Obama to veto the defense budget bills, repeatedly arguing that their plan supplies full funding for the Defense Department without adding unnecessary spending to other non-defense agencies.
They have also blasted Democrats for slowing progress on military pay raises, family support services, and needed training and modernization efforts by opposing the budget plans.
On Tuesday, Democrats on the appropriations panel said they would hold their objections until later this week (when the full committee votes on the measure) and the floor debate on the plan.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., again called the war funding workaround a "budget gimmick" and noted defense officials have opposed the plan, no matter the funding total.
"We need to negotiate a budget deal that addresses all the needs of our country and sets us on a sustainable budget path," he said.
The Senate defense appropriations measure is about $3 billion less in total spending than the House plan under consideration. It would pay for only a 1.3 percent pay raise for troops next year and allow defense officials to slow the growth of military housing allowances.
Outside advocates this week petitioned senators to provide a more generous pay and benefits plan for troops in the budget bill, arguing that changes over the last several years threaten to create a wide gap between civilian pay and service members' compensation.
House members have already backed a 2.3 percent pay raise for 2016, which would match the expected growth in civilian wages but also cost the Pentagon up to $4 billion over the next five years.
Senate appropriators rejected plans for military pharmacy co-pay increases and an overhaul of the Tricare system, and included a 7 percent increase in defense department medical research from last year's budget.
It would fund the construction of 10 new warships and supply $1 billion for Guard and reserve equipment modernization, as well as $228.5 million in new funding for non-military research across the services.