The National Guard faces a crisis as lawmakers bicker over Capitol funding

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Emergency funding to reimburse the National Guard for its mission to protect lawmakers and plug other holes in the Pentagon budget are in limbo as Democrats and Republicans argue over a multi-billion dollar package to beef up security at the Capitol.

Lawmakers have just a few weeks to close a $521 million gap incurred by deploying thousands of troops to guard the Capitol complex following the Jan. 6 insurrection. Without a patch in place by August, the National Guard is warning that training and maintenance will be significantly curtailed, a readiness crunch that could take months, if not years, to repair.

Replenishing the Army and Air National Guard coffers is part of negotiations over a broader supplemental funding package to beef up Capitol security, the size and scope of which is being disputed by Democrats and Republicans.

The looming widespread stoppage of drills, maintenance, flying operations and school training — as Guard units across the country confront wildfire and hurricane seasons and continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic — in addition to a budget cliff faced by the U.S. Capitol Police could be catalysts for a deal in the coming weeks.

But the partisan gap grew this week as Senate Republicans and Democrats traded, and rejected, vastly different funding proposals.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) this week unveiled a $3.7 billion Capitol security plan that is nearly double the $1.9 billion blueprint passed by the House in May. More Pentagon money now hangs in the balance with the Senate Democratic plan sponsored by Leahy, which provides $1.8 billion to the Pentagon to reimburse the Guard, address a budget shortfall in military health programs due to pandemic response efforts and boost military stores of personal protective equipment.

Leahy's plan is nearly six times larger than a slimmed down plan offered last week by the Senate spending committee's top Republican, Richard Shelby of Alabama, that would allocate $633 million to address the immediate funding shortfalls for the National Guard and Capitol Police.

With the clock ticking to address the Guard's looming budget crisis, Democrats have rejected the GOP's push to narrowly target spending on the military and Capitol Police, arguing investments in hardening the Capitol to avert another attack can't wait.

“Some Congressional Republicans are so desperate to whitewash the Capitol insurrection that they are now holding up funds to pay Capitol Police officers and repay the National Guard, and underfunding needed security infrastructure upgrades to protect the Capitol complex,” said Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who also chairs the panel that oversees legislative branch funding. “They are also neglecting other critical safety and health needs of the Capitol complex and those who work in and visit the Capitol building.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are accusing Democrats of stuffing the package with extraneous items. They argue Congress should immediately address the time-sensitive funding needs of the Guard and Capitol law enforcement, where there is bipartisan agreement.

Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), who has led a bipartisan push to quickly reimburse the Guard, slammed both broader Democratic proposals during a House Appropriations Committee debate on annual defense spending legislation Tuesday, calling Leahy's bill in the Senate “bloated” and “a non-starter.”

“Instead of focusing on the two bills we need to pay, National Guard and Capitol Police reimbursement, these proposals are legislation taking advantage of a crisis,” Womack said.

The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, also called for separate action to fund the National Guard, demanding this week that the House cancel its upcoming recess and stay in session until a “clean” Guard reimbursement is signed into law.

“The supplemental, passed by the House in a partisan manner in May, languishes in the Democrat controlled Senate over concerns of extraneous spending. This partisan bill harms our National Guard,” Rogers wrote in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “We must come together and pass a clean supplemental to ensure the National Guard, which remained unnecessarily at the Capitol with your support, has the funds needed to train for and fulfill their mission.”

The $1.9 billion House security bill passed in late May with no Republicans support.

Both the House and Senate, meanwhile, face a crowded agenda with just over two weeks before a month-long summer recess that could complicate the path for a potential supplemental funding deal.

‘Critical readiness impacts'

The head of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Daniel Hokanson, publicly warned lawmakers in May that the Guard must be reimbursed by August to avoid impacts on training in the final months of the fiscal year.

In the ensuing months, those warnings have become more stark. A July 6 National Guard report warns of far-reaching effects on training, vehicle and aviation readiness as well as facility sustainment efforts if lawmakers don't approve more money by the beginning of August.

“Without timely reimbursement by August 1, 2021, the National Guard will experience critical readiness impacts across its entire enterprise,” the report states. The report was shared by the offices of Womack and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who are pressing House and Senate leadership to quickly reimbursement the Guard.

A slip in the reimbursement past Aug. 1 will result in portions of annual training and weekend drills being canceled, the Guard warns. An August combat training center rotation for the 54th Security Force Assistance Brigade, a new Army National Guard unit that helps train and advise allied militaries, will also be canceled without more money.

The Army National Guard will restrict ground vehicle maintenance and predicts that vehicle readiness won't recover for eight to 12 months. It also anticipates a slowdown of helicopter maintenance and restricted flying that will result in a readiness gap that will take 10 to 14 months to repair.

The Air National Guard would similarly see its flying missions restricted that will further hamper readiness as the service continues to recover from the effects of its pandemic response.

A continued budget shortfall would also force the Army and Air National Guard to put off dozens of facility sustainment and restoration projects and force the cancellation of Guard troops' school training.

John Goheen, a spokesperson for the National Guard Association of the United States, warned of lingering effects on the force of not reimbursing the deployment, including delayed schooling for troops that can't be quickly made up and troops who won't have served enough days to qualify for a year toward military retirement if training is canceled.

“Some things just absolutely have to be done,” Goheen told POLITICO. “There's some stuff we really should do that's going to get cut, and the impact here is going to be significant. It's going to be significant for the readiness of the force. It's going to be significant for individual Guardsmen, soldiers and airmen that aren't going to get their training this year.”

More Pentagon budget issues

The cost of the Capitol deployment isn't the only lengthy Guard mission causing budget heartburn. The Pentagon recently warned lawmakers that more money is needed in Army coffers to cover the unbudgeted expenses of deploying to the southern border to avert harming readiness or even a potential breach of federal budget law.

A $4.3 billion Pentagon budget reprogramming request sent to Congress last month seeks to shift $420 million into Army personnel and operations and maintenance accounts to cover costs of border operations, where Guard troops have been backstopping Department of Homeland Security personnel since the Trump administration.

The request — which includes money for pay and allowances for Guard troops deployed to the border and to restore Army operations and maintenance accounts used to “cash flow” the cost of border support — must be approved by the House and Senate Armed Services and Appropriations Committees. If left unfunded, the Army would be at risk of breaching the Antideficiency Act, a federal law that governs how agencies must parcel out money each year, and would see “dire impacts” to readiness, the Pentagon warned in its reprogramming request.

Senate Democrats are also aiming to use to the Capitol security supplemental to plug another hole in the defense budget — a shortfall in military health programs that's resulted from the Pentagon's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Leahy's bill includes $761 million to mitigate military health funding gaps.

Acting Pentagon health chief Terry Adirim warned senators in April that the Pentagon's health program had already racked up $673 million in costs that weren't anticipated due to the coronavirus response, but added those costs were expected to nearly triple to $1.8 billion. The Pentagon has not asked for additional money to address the issue, instead requesting to shift funding within the defense budget to cover some of that total.

What's next

With only weeks to avert training cancellations and other dire consequences, and despite bipartisan agreement that the Guard must be reimbursed, Republicans and Democrats remain at loggerheads over the scope of the security package.

In addition to partisan differences over what should be immediately funded and how much money to provide, a Capitol security bill will also have to compete with other pressing items on an increasingly crowded July congressional agenda.

Congress's growing to-do list includes considering annual government funding bills, a potential bipartisan infrastructure deal and budget legislation that will allow Democrats to unlock fast-track procedures to pass more infrastructure and jobs funding.

The Senate may also consider upwards of a dozen nominees for top Pentagon posts, and the House and Senate Armed Services panels will begin working on their annual defense policy bills this month.

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