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Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter Funding Frozen By Capitol Hill Budget Negotiations

Members of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star participate in various activities on the ice about 13 miles from McMurdo Station, Antarctica on Jan. 26, 2018. US Coast Guard Photo

The U.S. Coast Guard’s funding for a polar icebreaker is set to be postponed yet again, after Congress and President Donald Trump again failed to reach an agreement on Fiscal Year 2019 funding for the Department of Homeland Security and the Senate today began work on passing another short-term continuing resolution. 

Despite multiple delays to the DHS budget – and the $750-million icebreaker request to get the shipbuilding program started this year – a Homeland Security budget expert says he is confident the Coast Guard will ultimately be able to start the icebreaker program without any lasting damage due to widespread support for the icebreaker and Arctic activities in general on Capitol Hill.

The Coast Guard’s leadership has done a great job promoting the need for a new fleet of icebreakers, now called the Polar Security Cutter, to the point there’s broad support for the program on Capitol Hill and at the White House, Mark Cancian, a senior advisor for the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told USNI News.

“The good news is there’s a bipartisan consensus that the nation needs icebreakers, and it’s in the budget, they’ve done the design work, so there’ll be icebreakers,” Cancian said. “The bad news is that, because of budget caps, they are in competition with the wall and border security.”

Unlike the other military branches that are part of the Department of Defense, which had an FY 2019 spending plan approved just before the new fiscal year started, the Coast Guard has been stuck in a holding pattern operating under a continuing resolution that simply extended 2018’s funding levels rather than approving the new requested 2019 levels.

The latest continuing resolution expires Friday; however, Senate leaders today proposed a bill that would fund the government until February. If that continuing resolution cannot be passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump by Friday, the Department of Homeland Security and other domestic agencies such as the Departments of State, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Transportation, and others would see a government shutdown in the absence of funding.

The Coast Guard had hoped to buy its first icebreaker in FY 2019, which cannot be done under a continuing resolution. Without funding for the icebreaker program now, the Coast Guard will have to continue leaning on its lone heavy icebreaker, which is quickly nearing the end of its anticipated service life. A second medium icebreaker is not meant for use in thick Arctic and Antarctic ice. If the one heavy icebreaker, USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10), were to suffer a serious mechanical problem, the Coast Guard has no backup, Adm. Karl Schultz, the Coast Guard Commandant, said at a recent National Press Club event.

“Diplomacy and cooperation are really hollow and shallow without presence,” Schultz said during his talk. “With only two icebreakers, the U.S. is falling behind other nations.”

The hang-up for a deal on an actual FY 2019 appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security is Trump’s request for money to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Cancian said. The Senate version of the Department of Homeland Security FY 2019 appropriation bill included only money for border security enhancements. The House version, though, included $5 billion for a border wall and paid for it by cutting funding for a variety of other DHS programs, including the icebreaker.

The problem for the Coast Guard isn’t just the wall, Cancian said, but the spending caps Congress operates under.

“Congress can’t just add money; they have to find offsets,” Cancian said.

In the meantime, the Coast Guard is restricted to operating under last year’s spending levels and barred from paying to start new programs. If Congress were to ultimately pass a year-long continuing resolution for DHS, Cancian still thinks the Coast Guard is in good shape to start building an icebreaker.

There could be some wheeling and dealing, where the Coast Guard agrees to shelve other programs and divert the money to building an icebreaker, he said. Or Congress could approve a plan to only pay for part of the $750 million cost in FY 2019, leaving the rest for following fiscal years.

The problem is if the Coast Guard budget is severely cut, then leadership will have to make some hard choices.

“If you lost top line and wanted to keep it, you’d have to gut so many other programs which would be so disruptive,” Cancian said. “It’s much easier to hold a program instead of disrupting 12.”

Ultimately, Cancian thinks the icebreaker program is in good shape with a lot of support on Capitol Hill and other government agencies. Also, he doubts $5 billion will actually be appropriated for a border wall. Homeland Security will likely be able to use some of that money the House put into a wall budget for other programs.

“I think there’s a good chance (the icebreaker) will get funded in whatever compromise comes out on the domestic side of the budget,” Cancian said. “The chances are good, but very good in the long term because Congress is concerned about the opening up of the Arctic.”