Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told lawmakers on Tuesday that he was wasting time outlining military strategies while Congress fails to provide the funding to carry them out.
"It is not lost on me that as I testify before you this morning, we are again on the verge of a government shutdown or, at best, another damaging continuing resolution," Mattis said in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee.
"I regret that without sustained, predictable appropriations, my presence here today wastes your time, because no strategy can survive without the funding necessary to resource it. We all know America can afford survival," he said.
The secretary was referring to the stopgap funding known as a continuing resolution, or CR, which Congress passed in lieu of a full-year budget and which keeps most defense spending at 2017 levels. The current resolution will expire at midnight Thursday, and the House and Senate are expected to resort to fifth resolution. There is disagreement between the chambers over whether to fully fund the Defense Department at 2018 levels while leaving domestic agencies at 2017 levels.
The hearing was called to have Mattis and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify on the Nuclear Posture Review and the new National Defense Strategy presented by Mattis last month.
Selva has noted that the Defense Department will be in the predicament on Friday of beginning to outline spending proposals for fiscal 2019, while operating without a budget for fiscal 2018 and spending at levels authorized for 2017.
Mattis bluntly told the lawmakers that they were shirking their responsibilities by failing to provide the military with the nearly $700 billion in funding called for in the National Defense Authorization Act passed last year.
The result was a loss of morale in the ranks and severe impacts on the readiness to respond to a crisis, Mattis said.
"To advance the security of our nation, these troops are putting themselves in harm's way, in effect signing a blank check payable to the American people with their lives," Mattis said. "They do so despite Congress' abrogation of its Constitutional responsibility to provide stable funding."
Add to existing story after last graf ending ... provide stable funding."
Mattis' testimony came just before the House was to vote on a bill to enact yet another continuing resolution that would also separate defense funding from domestic spending and lift budget caps under sequestration mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
The bill to avoid another government shutdown at midnight Thursday faced uncertain prospects in the Senate but could set the stage for agreement on a modified resolution that might finally yield a budget agreement for fiscal 2018, according to Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia.
In a conference call with reporters on other issues, Kaine said, "We need to get out of CR mania," adding that he saw the possibility for agreement on a brief resolution that would pave the way for a deal "pretty quickly on both the defense and non-defense portions of the budget."
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, last week made a similar argument for a brief continuing resolution at a Republican retreat at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where Mattis and President Donald Trump made appearances.
Kaine said, "That's a good thing and it looks like we're getting close and I'm not expecting to see any shutdown of government because both sides are talking."
At the hearing, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the panel's chairman, called Mattis' challenge to Congress "the bluntest statement I have ever heard" on the need to drop the political maneuvering and pass a budget.
Thornberry, who has argued previously for splitting defense spending from non-defense spending, made the case again in his opening remarks.
"It is morally wrong to send brave men and women out on missions under any strategy for which they are not fully trained, equipped and supported with the best that this country can provide," he said. "That support should not be conditioned on any other issue" such as spending on domestic programs.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, the committee's ranking member, argued against the divide between defense and non-domestic spending and said they must be linked.
If defense spending gets total priority, "you gut everything else," Smith said, adding that Thornberry's proposal would shortchange other agencies important to national security, such as the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department.
"To sit here and say, 'We're going to stand up and spend all this money on defense because it would just be wrong to prioritize other things' is patently absurd and insulting," Smith said. "Defense is incredibly important. It's not the only thing important in keeping the peace."
Although Congress appeared to be moving towards another stopgap continuing resolution of uncertain duration, Mattis said the Defense Department was once again going through preparations for a possible shutdown at midnight Thursday.
In a shutdown, uniformed and civilian Pentagon personnel would not get paid unless Congress passes an emergency measure to exempt them, according to Pentagon Comptroller Dennis Norquist.
In his testimony, Mattis said one of his main concerns was that Congress would give up on reaching a budget deal and fall back on a full-year continuing resolution.
"To those who might suggest that we should accept a year-long continuing resolution, it would mean a return to the disastrous sequestration level of funding for the military," the defense secretary said.
"Let me be clear -- as hard as the last 16 years of war have been, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act's defense spending caps, worsened by operating in 10 of the last 11 years under continuing resolutions of varied and unpredictable duration," Mattis said.
-- Amy Bushatz contributed to this report.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.