Senate leadership floats potential supplemental defense funding amid GOP debt limit concerns

Senate Republican defense hawks lambasted the debt limit deal as providing insufficient Pentagon funding, securing a commitment from Schumer and McConnell to consider additional emergency funding

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) calls on a reporter during a press conference after final passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act at the U.S. Capitol Building on June 01, 2023 in Washington, DC.

The debt ceiling deal between House Republicans and President Joe Biden passed the Senate late Thursday evening by a 63-36 vote, after Senate Republican defense hawks secured an agreement from Senate leaders to consider pursuing a supplemental appropriations bill to increase defense funding. 

Half a dozen GOP hawks had taken to the Senate floor Thursday afternoon to lambast the debt ceiling deal, arguing that it did not provide a sufficient funding increase for the Pentagon. The deal sets 2024 defense spending at $886 billion, 3% more than the 2023 funding level and in line with the administration’s funding request. But critics noted that Congress voted in the past two years, on a bipartisan basis, to increase defense spending above the Biden requests, and that the proposed increase would fall short of inflation. 

“This bill poses a mortal risk to our national security, by cutting our defense budget, which I cannot support, as grave dangers gather on the horizon,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) said earlier Thursday in a floor speech. “The result is that a Congress with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate has now produced a defense budget worse, in real terms, than either defense budget produced by a unified Democratic Congress.”

In a joint statement Thursday evening, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that “this debt ceiling deal does nothing to limit the Senate’s ability to appropriate emergency supplemental funds to ensure our military capabilities are sufficient” to address threats including Russia, China and “Iranian threats to American interests and those of our partners in the Middle East.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said the statement represented “a process in place to undo some of [the] damage” he said the bill would do to U.S. national security and defense. “Tying the safety of our nation and our men and women in uniform with the fiscal health of this country was a mistake, which I hope we learn from and do not repeat,” Graham continued.

Earlier in the day, Graham had raised a series of specific security concerns in a Senate floor speech, including a Thursday Washington Post report that Iran is planning to ramp up its attacks against U.S. troops in Syria.

In his speech, Graham compared the situation to the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

“How [we got] here is the House produced [a] product that undercut the narrative [that] we’re the party of Reagan,” Graham told reporters after the speech. “The product blessed by the House on the defense side was woefully inadequate and I’ll never forget that. And the sequestration provisions are bizarre… I would never let these people buy me a car.”

The sequestration provisions Graham referred to are a mechanism in the deal that would cut overall federal spending across the board to 99% of 2023 budget levels if Congress does not pass appropriations bills for the entire federal government on time this year. 

The GOP senators noted that, if this provision kicked in, defense spending would end up below the level laid out in the debt limit deal, while non-defense spending would end up higher than the level set out in the deal.

They sought, and received a specific assurance, in the form of another joint statement from Schumer and McConnell, that the Senate would “work in a bipartisan, collaborative way to avoid” sequestration, that the appropriations process would move ahead and that they would both work to “seek and facilitate floor consideration of these bills.”

The debt limit deal’s defense provisions also caused some consternation among Democratic defense hawks, but they ultimately voted in favor of the bill.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-RI) told reporters on Thursday that he assumed Congress will have to pass a supplemental funding bill for Ukraine, but sidestepped a question about a broader supplemental that would fund additional Pentagon activities.

“We have been put in a position by the Republicans to pass this bill to avoid the collapse of the American economy and the world economy,” Reed said. “That’s what we’re doing today.” 

Other Democrats on Armed Services indicated an openness to a defense supplemental.

Even if the supplemental is introduced, there’s no guarantee such a bill would be taken up by or approved in the House.

“I think there’s a lot of people in the House who understand that the threats are real,” Graham told Jewish Insider when pressed on the subject. “If we pass a supplemental that addresses defeating Putin [and] increasing military spending for us because of inflation and it dies in the House, then that’d be the legacy of the House.”

Prior to the final debt limit vote, the Senate rejected, by a 49-48 vote, an amendment by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) that would have rescinded additional IRS funding and transferred it to the Pentagon. 

Meanwhile, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who leads the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee, told reporters that the proposed budget cap for Homeland Security is untenable given the wave of undocumented migrants at the southern border. Murphy’s subcommittee oversees programs including the Nonprofit Security Grant Program.

“I just look at the budget I’m in charge of and cannot figure out how we would make a Homeland [Security] budget work amidst this surge of presentations at the border with flat funding,” Murphy said. “There’s no way to adequately protect the homeland.”

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