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Congress will not pass a budget before adjourning next month, but experts say the fiscal 2017 defense policy bill can still move forward, with the understanding that it may need some revising later.

Lawmakers announced on Thursday that they’re beginning to work on a second continuing resolution for fiscal 2017 to last through the end of March. That means members finishing up negotiations on the National Defense Authorization Act will not know which top line to mark to, since there is an $18 billion difference between the House and Senate bills.

The authorization bill involves policy, while the appropriations bill actually allocates funds for different accounts. Both the authorization and appropriation bills that passed the Senate match the dollar amount the president requested for the Defense Department, which is $610 billion total. The House bill, on the other hand, takes $18 billion from the overseas contingency operations account and applies that toward base priorities, like maintenance and readiness. That’ll leave funding for U.S. troops overseas short and will force the next administration to pass a supplemental request within months of taking office.

The overseas contingency operations account is not subject to the funding caps mandated by the Budget Control Act, but the base budget is.



Authorizers are looking at splitting the difference and giving an additional $9 billion to defense, but it’s unclear whether the appropriators, who actually control the purse, will take a similar tack.

There is precedent for the NDAA passing before the appropriations bill, but the topline difference is usually only $1 or $2 billion. The bigger difference, as well as the fundamental conflict over funding the overseas contingency operations and spending within the budget caps, makes this year more complicated, said Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“There is some possibility that you could pass an authorization bill even if the final appropriations question got deferred until the next administration,” Hunter said.

Before Congress had announced its intention to punt a full budget until next year, Todd Harrison, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he thought lawmakers would be able to finish the NDAA in December once they agreed on a total dollar amount.

“Once they agree on a top line for defense, then they can also move forward on the NDAA,” he said at a Bloomberg event this week. “So presumably, they’ve had a long time now to conference that bill … hopefully they’ve got those things resolved and they can just work out all the final differences once they have a top line number pushing the NDAA before Christmas as well.”

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Lawmakers have a few tricks to getting around having a budget, Hunter said. One option is to finish the National Defense Authorization Act with the top line they predicted and then adjust the numbers in the authorization bill later if the appropriations bill is different. They could also pass the authorization, but give the Pentagon the ability to move money around to match the appropriation once that becomes law.

“I could see them doing something like basically authorizing two different budget paths if they felt it necessary,” Hunter said. “They can authorize what they want to authorize and if the appropriation ends up in a different place, they can go back and retroactively authorize what they did.”

While authorization bills have absolutely passed before appropriations bills in the past, Harrison said a new president taking office under a continuing resolution has never happened before and is “somewhat unprecedented.”

“They’ve always been able to pass a budget bill. And they’ve always passed the NDAA before a new administration takes office,” Harrison said.

Congress has passed a National Defense Authorization Act every year for the past 54 years. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., is circulating a letter among members of the House Armed Services Committee asking lawmakers not to adjourn for the year before the fiscal 2017 authorization bill is passed, according to a senior staffer.

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“The primary function of government is to provide for the common defense, and for 54 consecutive years, Congress has successfully acted to support the service members currently protecting American families around the world,” reads the letter, which is expected to be sent to Speaker Paul Ryan this week.

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