Senate, House Republicans on collision course over defense spending 

Senate Republicans are looking for a way to get around the caps on defense spending set by the debt limit deal that President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) negotiated last month, putting them on a collision course with House Republicans.

Republican defense hawks on the Senate Appropriations Committee vented their frustration with the allocations for the Defense Department set by Senate Democrats and House Republicans, which represents an increase of more than 3 percent over current spending levels. 

“If you’re looking at China’s navy and you think now’s the time to shrink our Navy, you sure as hell shouldn’t be in the Navy. We go from 298 ships under this budget deal to eventually 291. ... You sunk the Navy. The Congress has sunk eight ships. How many fighter squadrons have we parked because of this deal?” fumed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) at a committee hearing Thursday morning. 

“GDP to defense spending is going to be at a historic low under this deal,” he said, arguing that the defense spending cap will also hurt Ukraine in its war against Russia. “There’s not a penny in this deal to help them keep fighting. Do you really want to be judged in history as having, at a moment of consequence to defeat Putin, to pull all the money for Ukraine?” 

Graham suggested Thursday afternoon that Senate Republicans may attempt to renegotiate the defense spending cap set by the debt limit law later this year. 

“There will be conversation among senators and hopefully the House to increase our spending to deter China. Reducing the size of the U.S. Navy doesn’t deter China,” he said. 

Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the top-ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said she was concerned that "the new debt limit law caps regular defense funding in fiscal year 2024 at the inadequate level requested by the president" and that it "fails to meet the security challenges facing our nation.”

House Republicans have proposed $826 billion for the annual defense appropriations bill, while Senate Democrats have proposed $823 billion for the defense spending bill, keeping in line with the spending caps McCarthy negotiated with Biden.  

Those numbers don’t include defense spending spread across other departments, including the Department of Energy, which oversees the nation’s nuclear arsenal; the Department of Homeland Security; and money allocated for military construction and veterans affairs. 

Graham and Collins are hoping to increase defense spending levels later in the year — possibly by passing a supplemental defense spending bill that includes money for Ukraine — but McCarthy has already poured cold water on the deal.  

“I’m not going to prejudge what some of them [in the Senate] do, but if they think they’re writing a supplemental because they want to go around an agreement we just made, it’s not going anywhere,” he told Punchbowl News earlier this month. 

Adding fuel to the fire, House Republicans have proposed cutting an additional $119 billion from discretionary spending by setting spending targets for the annual spending bills that cumulatively fall well below the caps that Biden and McCarthy agreed to for those programs — $886 billion for defense and $703.7 for nondefense programs.  

House Republicans are proposing finding those additional savings by cutting from nondefense discretionary spending programs, which will likely put pressure on the Department of Homeland Security. 

Meeting the House Republican targets for nondefense programs could entail spending cuts ranging between 15 percent to 30 percent for the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Interior, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.  

Such a showdown over spending levels heightens the chances of Senate Democrats and House Republicans failing to agree, and then not passing the regular spending bills, which means they would have to resort to a stopgap spending measure. If they fail to pass all 12 appropriations bills by Dec. 31, that would trigger an across-the-board, 1-percent rescission for all defense and nondefense discretionary spending.  

Senate Republicans warn the 1-percent spending sequester would hit defense programs harder than nondefense programs. 

Graham and Collins also spoke out Thursday against the spending allocations Senate Democrats set for homeland security. 

Homeland Security Department funding is under pressure because of the spending cap Biden and McCarthy agreed to as part of the debt limit deal.  

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said the debt limit deal squeezed federal funding priorities across the board.  

“We were given a top-line [spending number] that was extremely challenging and difficult,” she said. “I would dare say no one on this committee, certainly Sen. Collins or I, would have negotiated that agreement. We were not in the room but we have been given that order.” 

Graham said that under the spending caps agreed to last month, the Homeland Security Department would not have enough money to stem the flow of fentanyl and other drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“If you’ve looked at the border and you feel like we can spend less on homeland security, you shouldn’t be allowed to drive. This place is falling apart. and fentanyl is killing Americans. We need more, not less, to address that,” he said.  

Graham suggested that the consequences of the spending caps would be severe if kept in place over the long-term. 

“We’re in a tough spot. I like the idea we’re not going to be perpetually bound by this,” he said. 

Collins raised similar concerns.  

“Due to the inadequacy of funding for Homeland Security and the need for additional defense funding, unfortunately I cannot support the 302(b) allocations,” Collins said of the money proposed for the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon. 

“Our crisis at the southern border continues. We are on pace for another 2.2 million encounters with migrants this fiscal year,” she added. “Despite this ongoing calamity, the proposed 302(b) allocation would actually reduce funding for the Department of Homeland Security, limiting our ability to have sufficient personnel and technology at the southern border.” 

Graham and Collins made their comments in reaction to the $56.9 billion in budget authority that Senate Democrats proposed for the annual Homeland Security appropriations bill.  

The Republican-controlled House Appropriations panel has approved $63.9 billion in budget authority for homeland security appropriations. 

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, told colleagues at the hearing Thursday morning that he agrees with Graham and Collins that the defense funding levels set forth by the Senate and House are “inadequate.”  

“Am I happy with the defense number? No. I think it’s inadequate, quite frankly,” he said. 

He later told The Hill that he found it ironic that Republicans, who usually like to bill themselves as fiscal hawks, are the ones now looking to get around the spending caps. 

“I just felt like we had flipped positions today. Democrats were able to take the conservative [debt limit] number, and Republicans wanted the more liberal number,” he said.