The Senate Armed Services Committee’s surprise decision to endorse a $25 billion increase to the Pentagon’s budget this week was an utter blowout — and the clearest sign yet that Democrats are more than willing to back sizable increases to President Joe Biden’s military spending plan.
The committee adopted a proposal to boost the budget in a whopping 25 to 1 vote Wednesday during a closed door markup of its version of annual defense policy legislation, according to four Senate aides with knowledge of the deliberations.
The vote, which boosted the recommended Pentagon budget from $715 billion to over $740 billion, aligned Republican defense hawks with Democrats from across the political spectrum in a bipartisan rebuke of the White House’s proposal. The budget increase was offered by the panel’s top Republican, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.
Only progressive Democrat Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) opposed the effort, according to a pair of aides. Warren is a vocal advocate for cutting defense spending from its historically high levels and has often voted against the policy bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act.
The dozen Democrats backing the defense spending spike included Armed Services Chair Jack Reed of Rhode Island, centrists such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Kelly of Arizona and progressive Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
Though some Democrats have appeared amenable to some sort of budget increase in recent weeks, their near-unity on the issue was unexpected and upends an already tumultuous partisan debate over federal spending that already includes multi-trillion talks over infrastructure spending and the debt limit.
Still, some insiders saw a defense budget hike as a inevitable with Democrats needing Republican votes to pass defense legislation in both the House and Senate. A $25 billion increase, they note, pales in comparison to Democrats’ high-priority spending plans for infrastructure and other domestic priorities.
The decision puts pressure on the Democratic-led House Armed Services Committee to endorse a similar spending hike in its version of the NDAA. That also goes for the Senate Appropriations Committee, which, unlike the Armed Services committees, actually allocates funding. A wider deal on spending legislation, not just the NDAA, is needed for a budget increase to become a reality.
Boosting the defense budget was largely a GOP talking point up to this week. Republicans have hammered Biden’s $715 billion defense request as something that, although it is above the current year’s level, wouldn’t keep up with the expected rate of inflation. Instead, GOP lawmakers have called for a 3 to 5 percent increase above inflation, a range the bill achieved with this week’s increase.
Reed, for his part, had not said what budget topline his bill would endorse. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, another senior Armed Services Democrat who represents a military and shipbuilding heavy state, argued in hearings that the Pentagon would still have more buying power under the administration’s proposed level because Biden halted the Trump administration’s effort to shunt billions from military construction projects toward a border wall.
Kelly, a former naval aviator and astronaut who is up for reelection in 2022, said the budget buildup was needed to meet military requirements that didn’t make the spending request.
“This bipartisan increase in defense spending was necessary to support a number of unfunded requirements from the military branches and combatant commanders critical to getting our servicemembers the tools, training, and resources they need,” Kelly said in a statement. “It also funds the development of new technologies to maintain our competitive edge, while also addressing a broader scope of national security priorities.”
On Thursday, senators from both parties touted the investments the bill makes in weapons programs and installations in their states. The final bill, which authorizes $778 billion in total for national defense programs and boosts funding for major weapons such as the F-35 fighter and funds an extra Navy destroyer, resembles previous bills approved by a Republican-led committee.
While Democrats’ move to override Biden’s military blueprint made waves in the nation’s capital, the Senate’s makeup likely made the budget boost a matter of when, not if.
Despite being in the minority, Republicans have considerable leverage. With the Senate split 50-50 between the two parties and committees equally divided, Democrats need GOP votes to advance legislation on the floor. That means Republicans can extract concessions on must-pass bills such as the NDAA.
“This is precisely the midpoint of what we’ve been suggesting is possible,” Roman Schweizer, a defense analyst with Cowen, said in a note to investors Thursday. “We think it reflects the political reality of passing appropriations with bipartisan support this year.”
Higher defense spending is also a relatively small concession for Democrats compared to the trillions in spending advocated by Biden and congressional Democrats — including coronavirus relief, infrastructure and jobs legislation and spending hikes for domestic federal agencies.
“Biden’s budget is enormous everywhere,” said one defense lobbyist who asked not to be named. “So are you going to fight over $25 billion for defense? It’s nothing. It’s a rounding error at this point.”
Arnold Punaro, a former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the increase was “no surprise to me.” Lawmakers often close ranks to override large swaths of an administration’s budget regardless of party, he said.
“Congress changes the budget all the time,” Punaro said. “We were adding money to the defense budget when Carter was president and you had 65 Democratic senators.”
Still, the vote is a blow for progressive Democrats who saw Biden’s presidency and Democratic majorities in both chambers as an opportunity to curb military spending that skyrocketed under former President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress.
“One has to wonder what is even the point of a Senate Democratic majority if they’re going to not only continue Trump policies but work with Senate Republicans to undermine [Biden’s] priorities,” Stephen Miles, executive director of Win Without War, wrote on Twitter. “Utterly pathetic.”