With Ukraine Funded, New Fight Emerges in Congress Over Pentagon Spending

Just weeks after Congress settled its long-running fight over military assistance to Ukraine, lawmakers have engaged in a new battle over the level of Pentagon spending for next year.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, is pressing along with other Republicans for a significant increase in money for the military and to break the longstanding Democratic rule that domestic funding must rise equally with Pentagon spending.

“This is the most dangerous time in the world since the Berlin Wall came down, and the military spending needs to reflect the needs of our country, which clearly argues against having an arbitrary line that doesn’t spend more on defense than domestic,” Mr. McConnell said. “So I certainly do disagree with that, and we’re going to have a vigorous discussion about it.”

Democrats have demanded parity between domestic and military funding in recent years. They argue that social programs are as deserving as defense and should not get shortchanged — or absorb deeper cuts to accommodate more Pentagon spending.

Conservative critics of that approach have long contended that parity skews federal spending priorities.

In last year’s deal to suspend the debt limit and avoid a government default, Democrats and Republicans agreed to cap any domestic and military increases at 1 percent for the coming year — setting overall spending on national defense at about $895 billion. While top Democrats have expressed openness to going above that number, they say it cannot happen without an equivalent increase in domestic spending.

“We are going to fight that one out,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, noting that both sides agreed to the caps in last year’s legislation. “Let’s live by the damn agreement. They cannot pass appropriations bills on their own, as we have demonstrated time and again in the last go-round, and that has not changed.”

After military assistance to Ukraine stalled during months of stalemate over a special national security funding package, lawmakers would like to see more of the nation’s military commitments met through the regular process of writing annual spending bills. They are also alarmed at President Biden’s budget proposal for the military, saying it does not account for inflation.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said the proposal already faces a nearly $14 billion shortfall just to cover inflationary increases related to fuel, pay and health care — let alone investing in modernization, readiness and new weapons.

“There’s a huge gap between what is needed and what the budget would provide under the 1 percent increase,” she said. “At this time when the world is so dangerous, we need to be prepared.”

Senator Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat and chairman of the appropriations panel responsible for Pentagon spending, has not yet put a figure on what he thinks the Pentagon should receive but noted at a recent hearing that he agrees with Ms. Collins that “we need a bigger number.”

“If we’re going to invest in future technologies, this number has to be bigger,” he said.

The outcome of the fight might depend on the results of the November elections, as voters determine which party controls the spending process and whether power is shared as it is now between the Republican-led House and the Senate, controlled by Democrats.

Most lawmakers now expect major decisions on spending to be punted until after voting, with current funding levels extended beyond the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

But as the process of laying the groundwork begins, Senator Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat and chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said additional budget increases for military and domestic programs will have to be made in tandem.

“As members talk about how we might increase investments to better meet our defense needs, we cannot ignore our needs here at home as well,” she said recently. “I am going to insist on parity for nondefense spending — to make sure we are providing for our children and families and keeping them safe.”

Ms. Collins said that she understood the need to consider domestic spending increases but added that circumstances could warrant allowing military spending to grow more.

“We have different needs at different times in our history,” she said. “And there are times when parity might work. There are times when we might want more on the domestic side. This is not one of those times.”

Mr. McConnell, who is stepping down from his leadership position at the end of the year, argued that the Biden administration has consistently underfunded the military and that he intends to make bolstering military spending a personal priority in the remaining two years of his regular Senate term.

He said he was surprised recently when one senior Democrat, in a private conversation, supported the idea of breaking the parity link between military and other federal spending. He would not name the lawmaker but attributed the change in attitude to the fact that Russia’s war against Ukraine and mounting threats from China and elsewhere have opened the eyes of his fellow lawmakers to the need to invest more heavily in the military.

“This is a more challenging time right now than it was leading up to World War II,” Mr. McConnell said. “I don’t want it to take something like the Pearl Harbor attack to get our attention.”

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