Thought Leadership

Inside Defense: Senate Faces Pros and Cons in Crafting Defense Policy Bill Ahead of House

May 20, 2019

TPG in the News

By Tony Bertuca  May 20, 2019 at 5:00 AM

This week, for the first time in 10 years, the Senate Armed Services Committee will be marking up its version of the defense authorization bill ahead of its House counterpart, a timing shakeup that has distinct pros and cons for lawmakers, according to former congressional staffers.

The committees are likely to oppose each other in several areas, including the overall defense spending topline for fiscal year 2020. The GOP-led Senate panel will likely authorize the $750 billion the White House has requested, while the Democrat-led House committee is more likely to mark closer to $733 billion.

It is also expected that House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) will move to cut nuclear spending. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK), however, has said he would oppose any such reduction.

It is unclear where the committees are headed on the Pentagon’s proposal for a Space Force, though Senate authorizers have voiced bipartisan skepticism.

While Senate authorizers are expected to pass their final bill in closed session either Wednesday or Thursday, the full House Armed Services Committee will not mark up its legislation until June 12.

Arnold Punaro, a consultant and former Senate Armed Services Committee senior staffer for more than 20 years, said Senate authorizers are sticking to the historic timing of their markup, while it is the House that is opting to go later than usual.

“In my view there is nothing unusual about the timing of the SASC mark-up as this is the timeframe typically used by the SASC for mark-up including when I was staff director,” he said. “The HASC has selected a mid-June timeframe, which is their prerogative and a change from the past. But the SASC is in their normal time slot.”

Additionally, Punaro noted the House Appropriations Committee, which intends to mark up its FY-20 defense spending bill Tuesday, will precede the House Armed Services Committee by nearly a month. House appropriators are set to finalize a bill that would align with the $733 billion being considered by the authorizers.

Punaro said it is “fortuitous” for the Senate Armed Services Committee to be going first as they will be able to “set the high-water mark” for the defense budget at $750 billion.

“I also think the SASC is well aware of some of the likely positions that the House will take as there is lots of history of provisions and approaches the House takes when the Senate and the administration is controlled by another party,” he said. “So, they can anticipate from history but also act on the public statements of House leadership.”

However, Bill Greenwalt, a consultant and former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer, said going first is a disadvantage for senators.

“It’s always better for the Senate to mark up last in order to react to what the House does without needing to resort to the amendment process,” he said.

The reason? Differences in procedure that make it easier for the House to change its bill.

“The House — if they don’t like what the Senate has done — can always amend their bill on the floor if they can get a rule for it. So, there aren’t really any disadvantages to them going first,” he said. “In the Senate, it is easier to get something in the original mark than an amendment. The reason is the Senate floor amendment process has been broken for almost a decade so the SASC had to make a conscious decision this year that it was better to give up on this option in order to get floor time.”

Greenwalt also said the Senate Armed Services Committee mark could be “more contentious” than usual between Republicans and Democrats because GOP members led by Inhofe might try to pre-empt what Democrats in the House might do.

“They will have to envision more about what the House will likely do but that could make it a more contentious mark with the minority since they are guessing on how to position themselves for conference and might get it wrong,” he said.

But Greenwalt said the GOP-led Senate panel will at least “get the first press hit” on how lawmakers are responding to the president’s budget request.

American Enterprise Institute analyst Mackenzie Eaglen, a former defense committee staffer in both the House and Senate, said she doesn’t see the timing change as a “big thing,” except for “putting Sen. Inhofe’s redlines out there before he’s advertised them to the House. It could even be helpful in the long-run to signal to House Democrats and leadership that they have big bipartisan support in the Senate for $750 billion.”

Punaro said House and Senate authorizers this year have a chance to go to conference prior to the August recess.

Senate authorizers, he said, will likely have their bill ready for floor consideration prior to the July 4 recess, while the House can get on and off the floor quickly because of its rulemaking process.

“Both authorizers could theoretically be in conference prior to the August recess and be done prior to the beginning of the fiscal year,” he said.


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