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House Democrats weigh late changes to spending-caps package

April 9, 2019 GMT

Amid pressure from liberal activists, House Democrats were weighing last-minute changes Monday to their spending-caps package that would boost domestic funding in order to appease those who say the Pentagon is getting too much.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth said Monday evening that his aim is for the full House to vote on the broader package Wednesday morning though the final product could change a bit depending on how liberals’ proposed changes shake out.

“We’re still alive. There’s nothing that indicates that we’re dead,” he told reporters, adding that he plans to present his case to Democrats in a caucus meeting Tuesday morning.


His bill lays out spending limits for 2020 and 2021, raising the caps that would otherwise force deep cuts to both defense and domestic spending.

But the $733 billion he calls for spending at the Pentagon next year, while short of the $750 billion President Trump wants, is too much for liberal activists, and some Democrats, who say they should be flexing their new House majority to restrain the Defense Department.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who voted against Mr. Yarmuth’s plan in the Budget Committee last week, said the solution is to spend even more on domestic areas. She and other liberal Democrats proposed boosting non-defense spending by $67 billion over the next two years, which would bring it in line with the overall defense spending number.

“To be honest, we’re facing a tough choice because just the military spending alone is so incredibly high,” the Washington Democrat said Monday. “We think the best shot we have is to try to get [non-defense] higher.”

She said she doubted she would vote for the broader package if the amendment doesn’t pass, but that she wasn’t sure if other progressives felt the same way.

“A lot will depend on where that goes, whether it passes or not,” she said. “We’re trying to find out where people are.”

Liberal activist groups have likewise said the levels of Pentagon spending are much too high.

“This level of Pentagon increase remains unacceptable and unwise even, to borrow the president’s words, ‘crazy,’” a coalition of advocacy groups said in a letter sent to Capitol Hill on Monday.

The letter was signed by prominent left-wing groups like Indivisible and MoveOn. But it also had support from budget watchdog groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Taxpayers Union, suggesting patience with soaring defense budgets is wearing thin in circles beyond the left.


Meanwhile Rep. Barbara Lee, who voted to advance the plan out of committee but has also decried the level of spending for the Pentagon, was pushing an amendment that would create an additional $22 billion of room over the next two years to spend on a new veterans health-care program.

Ms. Jayapal said the veterans health spending is a “piece” of the debate but that “it still doesn’t get us quite enough.”

Mr. Yarmuth’s plan has won support elsewhere, including from the influential Congressional Black Caucus.

The leadership of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of more than 100 House Democrats whose priorities include promoting fiscally responsible policies, also supports passage of the legislation to prevent shutdowns and get next year’s spending process started, said Rep. Derek Kilmer, the group’s chairman.

“We also believe we need to to pursue a bipartisan, long-term approach to address structural causes of our growing deficits and debt,” said Mr. Kilmer, Washington Democrat. “We look forward to working with leaders on both sides of the aisle in Congress on these priorities.”

Democrats will have to muster the votes on their own, with Republicans saying Mr. Yarmuth’s proposal isn’t a serious ante in the spending caps debate.

“Without changes, this bill has no chance of being signed into law wasting an opportunity to responsibly fund our priorities,” said Rep. Steve Womack, Arkansas Republican.

House Democrats say they hope the caps legislation gives them opportunity to get moving on writing spending bills for the budget year that starts Oct. 1, even if the spending levels are unlikely to survive the GOP-controlled Senate intact.

The caps plan is in lieu of a full budget, which Mr. Yarmuth didn’t bother to write this year, after failing to referee the disputes between his party’s left wing and its more centrist members over big promises like the Green New Deal environmental plan or the “Medicare for All” health care plan.

In the Senate, Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi did advance through his panel a budget. It allows for a caps deal, but unlike House Democrats’ plan, that proposal says any spending increases have to be made up for with offsets over time.

Lawmakers are supposed to adopt a budget by April 15, but Congress hasn’t hit that target since 2003 and there’s no real penalty for blowing through it.