Senate leadership is eager to bring the House-passed Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 to the floor this week before members leave for recess Aug. 2. But with multiple GOP members still reportedly undecided and eight Democrats out of town this week for presidential debates, it is still unclear whether the votes are there to pass the two-year spending bill to avoid a potential continuing resolution or a return to sequestration.

The House last Thursday passed H.R. 3877, which would provide $738 billion for national defense in fiscal year 2020 and $741.5 billion in 2021, as well as stave off the threat of sequestration returning for the last two years of spending caps as imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (Defense Daily, July 25).

The bill passed the lower chamber by a vote of 284-149, with 66 Republicans voting for it and 16 Democrats voting against it. House leaders from both sides of the aisle pushed for the bill as a compromise solution that was the only chance of passing the Republican-led Senate, but as of July 30, many Senators, Republican and Democrat, remained on the fence (Defense Daily,  July 24).

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, told reporters July 30 that he would vote against the bill because it did not include structural reforms that would keep lawmakers from shutting down the government if they don’t reach a budget deal. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), also said he would vote against it.

Republicans including Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and John Kennedy (La.) had previously come out against the bill as well. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) declined to comment when asked by Defense Daily Tuesday.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-Fla.), also a SASC member, told Defense Daily he would support the bill, because “We can’t stop the momentum we have started with our military funding, and we have a lot of catching up to do.”

He argued that even from a conservative standpoint, the proposed deal achieved by White House leaders and House Democrats is more beneficial than any deal that could be reached later on.

“If we don’t seize this moment this week, whatever comes next will be far more expensive,” he warned.

Some Democrats, such as Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), said there were still issues within the bill they are looking to resolve before making up their mind. Shaheen said she wanted further clarity on defense spending vs. domestic spending but added she was “optimistic” about the House voting for the bill. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who sits on SASC along with Shaheen and Blumenthal, told Defense Daily he would support the bill.

As votes are whipped on both sides of the aisle, seven Democrats are in Minnesota this week for the second round of primary debates ahead of the 2020 election. They include: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he plans to keep lawmakers in town until all orders of business under consideration are complete, to include the budget deal.

“Considering the circumstances of divided government, the government funding agreement that President Trump’s team negotiated is a strong deal,” he added in a tweet later that day. “It achieves Republicans’ number one priority: Continuing to fund the rebuilding of our Armed Forces and modernizing our national defense.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters he is hoping the bill will pass “in a bipartisan way,” but admitted that the path to 60 votes was not crystal clear.

“If they fail to pass that bill, it would be a setback for everybody,” he said, adding that “mainly the military” would be affected.

He declined to say whether the SAC defense subcommittee – which he also chairs – would mark the FY ‘2020 budget topline to $738 billion even if the bill didn’t pass, or if it would work on the original $750 billion topline as originally included in the presidential budget request.

“I am hoping this passes and we are going to work together” on draft appropriations, he added. Once the Bipartisan Budget Act’s vote is complete, there will be more clarity about when the Senate appropriations process will begin, he said.

Sen. Shelley Moore-Capito (R-W.Va.), who chairs the SAC homeland security subcommittee, said that while a definite schedule is not in place yet, her committee’s staff plans to work on appropriations bills through August, “so I would imagine if we mark it up, it would be in September.” She added that she has begun conversations with her counterparts in the House Appropriations Committee and with SAC-HS Ranking Member Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.).

As of Defense Daily’s deadline, Capitol Hill sources said efforts were ongoing to whip Democratic votes to support the bill and get senators out of town by Friday.

Cramer said Republican support for the bill appeared to be “tenuous on board.”

“I think people see the path to 60 votes, but not necessarily certain which path it will be that will get us there,” he said. “I don’t know if anybody can give you a list of 60 senators that are definitely going to vote for it, but they might be able to give you a list of 70 senators that might vote for it.”