Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., speaks to the media outside the White House after a meeting with President Obama on Sept. 3. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
A cliffhanger finish to the 2014 defense budget is forecast by the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, leaving doubts right to the end of the year about funding levels, the size of the military pay raise and potential changes in how the military justice system handles rape and sexual assault cases.
It will take that long because Congress will first face decisions about a military strike on Syria, the imminent expiration of U.S. borrowing power, and debt reduction and spending priorities, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told defense reporters Sept. 11.
His comments come as the House Appropriations Committee has prepared a 2 ½ -month funding bill to keep the federal government running from Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, through Dec. 15. Meanwhile, the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit research group, predicts the nation will run out of borrowing power and be unable to pay some of its bills no earlier than Oct. 18 and no later than Nov. 5.
The short-term spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, allows the Defense Department to keep spending at fiscal 2013 levels but prohibits starting new weapons programs or increasing the rate of production.
Congress approved a pre-sequester appropriation of $597 billion, about $7 billion more than the 2014 budget proposed by the Obama administration. But how much money the military will get is unclear.
There also is no guarantee of passage, especially quick passage, of the continuing resolution because some Republicans in the House and Senate want to try to use the must-pass measure to cut off funding for the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. That fight could lead to a short-term government shutdown, but DoD would still continue to operate.
Work on the 2014 defense policy bill, a measure that authorizes military programs, has been stalled since June.
The fate of hundreds of defense programs depends on passage of the measure, including the size of the Jan. 1 military pay raise. The House approved a 1.8 percent increase while the Senate bill includes a 1 percent raise. If Congress doesn’t act by Jan. 1, troops will get the lower raise.
Debate on how the military justice system investigates and prosecutes rape and sexual assault cases has been delayed until the Senate takes up the bill.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel, has about 40 co-sponsors for proposal to create an independent judicial process outside of the normal military chain of command, to handle serious crimes not directly related to military duties.
The debt ceiling poses another thorny issue because some lawmakers want to tie deeper cuts in federal spending to any increase in the nation’s borrowing power.
Once the $16.7 trillion debt limit is reached, the U.S. Treasury won’t have enough cash on hand or coming in from new revenue to pay all of its bills, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. It predicts one-third of bills will not be paid, but it does not try to predict whether military and government salaries, retired pay and Social Security would be covered.
The Obama administration has not said which bills it would pay first, but the Nov. 1 military payday falls in the window when the policy center estimates the government would have to reduce spending.