`Hot Buttons’ Risk Upending Accord on $733 Billion Defense Bill

  • Partisan discord over Guantanamo prison, border wall, Iran
  • Democrats handicapped by overwhelming vote in Senate

House Democratic leaders face a stark choice in negotiating the annual defense policy bill: give up on provisions that won them support for the $733 billion measure and alienate many among their rank and file, or dig in and risk sinking the legislation for the first time in almost six decades.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith will enter talks with the Republican-led Senate having to defend several bitterly contested provisions: closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; preventing President Donald Trump from using military funds to build a border wall; prohibiting Trump from attacking Iran without prior congressional approval; overturning a ban on transgender individuals serving in the U.S. military; and restricting low-yield nuclear warheads.

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith.

“I don’t see Adam sort of surrendering,” Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “He believes very sincerely it is his mission from the caucus.”

“I agree there’s a lot of hot buttons in there,” Courtney added. “There could be some really contested votes, the likes of which we haven’t really seen in past conferences. We’ll have votes, and to the winner go the spoils.”

Common Ground

About 80 percent of the House and Senate defense authorization bills cover common ground, said Smith (D-Wash.).

“Commonalities outweigh the differences,” Smith said in an interview. Even the more difficult issues, such as Iran or transgender troops, received some Republican support in the House, he added.

Democrats may be handicapped by the fact that the Republican-led Senate passed its version of the fiscal 2020 defense authorization (S. 1790) measure by a large bipartisan vote of 86-8.

See the BGOV Bill Summary by Adam Schank

“The Senate is always going to take a more cautious approach on issues,” said Kelly Magsamen, a national security expert at the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress.

All House Republicans voted against the House version of the bill, invoking the refrain “Thank God for the Senate bill,” as . Mike Turner (R-Ohio) put it on the House floor.”

“I don’t think the Democrats in the Senate will support the provisions in this bill,” Turner said in an interview. In addition, Trump’s administration issued a veto threat over a laundry list of provisions in the House bill (H.R. 2500).

See the BGOV Bill Summary by Michael Smallberg

“Adam Smith has produced a solid, responsible bill and there are provisions that are going to be specifically attractive in the Senate that can be picked up and run with,” Magsamen, the CAP’s vice president for national security and international policy, said in a telephone interview. “Yes, negotiations are going to be tough and the Senate will push back.”

Among House provisions that could make it to a final defense bill are Iran war authorization and curtailing weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations involved in the war in Yemen, Magsamen said.

Party Lines

The House voted for the annual authorization bill 220-197, along party lines, after Speaker Nancy Pelosi quelled restive liberal Democrats who threatened to pull their support. Republicans refused to back the measure, saying it inadequately funds national security, undercuts the U.S. nuclear deterrent, and is too partisan.

The measure would reject Trump’s request to use the military to shore up the southern border and would bar the Pentagon from using any money to build walls, fences, or physical barriers.

It’s “packed with poison pills,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said before passage.

House Blocks Trump on Iran, Border in $733 Billion Defense Bill

“It’s not the issues, as much as it is the politics,” Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview.

Inhofe said he’s “sympathetic” toward Smith and said he doesn’t think he has the upper hand in talks because both he and the Washington Democrat “want the same thing”—to see a defense authorization bill enacted. Among other things, the measure includes a pay raise for troops.

Smith said that he was prepared for the Republicans to stonewall a Democratic defense bill and could see the “partisan politics” coming from the beginning of the year.

“They wanted an artificially high number,” Smith said of the Republicans’ insistence on $750 billion for national defense. The Republicans’ claim that Smith’s bill cuts defense, is the sort of “political dishonesty that doesn’t lend itself to good legislative process,” he said.

The dynamics will change in conference with the Senate, where Smith said he enjoys a good working relationship with Inhofe and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking committee member.

Becoming Law

Any final defense authorization measure would have to win the support of at least 60 senators, complicating the vote math in the House. There, Smith likely would have to rely on moderate Democrats and Republicans to get the conference report adopted.

Smith “wants to have a bill enacted, of course he does,” Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the House Armed Services panel’s top Republican, said in an interview. “It’s going to be a really hard job of bridging that difference between the House and Senate bills.”

Thornberry, as the House Republicans’ premier voice on national security, sparred with Smith for days during floor consideration of the bill and held the GOP conference together in voting against the bill—a rare move for a measure that traditionally enjoys bipartisan support.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com