Dem tensions snag defense bill

Lingering animosity among House progressives over a controversial border bill’s passage is threatening to trip up a sweeping defense policy bill that typically passes with large bipartisan majorities.

Progressives are balking at the $733 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which touches on everything from the type of hardware the Pentagon can buy to a pay raise for service members to setting up a new military service for space.

Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalDemocrats fear US already lost COVID-19 battle Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill banning federal government use of facial recognition tech | House lawmakers roll out legislation to establish national cyber director | Top federal IT official to step down MORE (D-Wash.) said Tuesday the bill "has got to get better."

ADVERTISEMENT

The expensive bill could be a tough sell for some liberals under any circumstances, but the tensions over immigration have made matters worse. 

Progressives are returning to Washington unhappy with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Justices rule Manhattan prosecutor, but not Congress, can have Trump tax records Supreme Court rulings reignite Trump oversight wars in Congress Pelosi on Baltimore's Columbus statue: 'If the community doesn't want the statue, the statue shouldn't be there' MORE’s (D-Calif.) decision late last month to move a $4.6 billion border-aid bill that had already passed the Senate. 

The Speaker added more fuel to the fire by dismissing criticisms in a high-profile interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd from four liberal darlings who call themselves “The Squad”: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezTrump tweets his support for Goya Foods amid boycott Hispanic Caucus requests meeting with private detention center CEOs Trump glosses over virus surge during Florida trip MORE (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarTucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid MORE (D-Minn.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibDemocrats see victory in Trump culture war The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid MORE (D-Mich.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressives zero in on another House chairman in primary Ocasio-Cortez pitches interns to work for her instead of McConnell MORE (D-Mass.).

Now the Democrats are being asked to back the defense bill. One senior Democratic source tracking the issue described it this way: “NDAA is turning into a s---storm.”

With Republicans threatening to withhold GOP votes from the legislation, which the White House threatened to veto on Tuesday evening, there is concern in the Democratic caucus that leaders could fall short of the 218 votes needed to pass the Pentagon bill. If all Republicans vote against the bill, 18 Democratic “no” votes could sink it. 

Wednesday’s Democratic caucus meeting, the first gathering since the weeklong Fourth of July recess, could be a contentious one.

“I’m sure we’re going to hate the price tag. The question is what other wins might we be able to achieve,” said Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanHouse members race to prepare for first-ever remote votes Overnight Energy: Biden campaign says he would revoke Keystone XL permit | EPA emails reveal talks between Trump officials, chemical group before 2017 settlement | Tensions emerge on Natural Resources panel over virtual meetings Tensions emerge on Natural Resources panel over virtual meetings MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the Progressive Caucus who wants language inserted to block military action in Iran and Yemen. “I’ve not voted for an NDAA in any year I’ve been in Congress. … I’m going to take a look and am considering it.”

The $733 billion top-line number is “definitely too high,” added Rep. Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyHillicon Valley: Facebook civil rights audit finds 'serious setbacks' | Facebook takes down Roger Stone-affiliated accounts, pages | State and local officials beg Congress for more elections funds House Democrats press Twitter, Facebook, Google for reports on coronavirus disinformation Dingell pushes provision to curtail drunk driving in House infrastructure package MORE (D-Ill.), vice chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus. “I’m undecided right now.”

Leadership aides downplayed any concerns about the bill’s fate. In a brief interview, Pelosi told The Hill it’s in “good shape.”

Top House Armed Services Committee aides attended separate meetings of Democratic chiefs of staff and legislative directors this week, pleading with them to get their bosses to back the bill, according to a source in the meetings. The committee aides also asked for lawmakers’ cellphone numbers so they could whip votes this week.

“Whenever they are there, it’s a bad sign. These are all signs of nervousness,” the source said.

A committee aide confirmed that staffers attended the meetings but pushed back on the notion that it’s a sign of nervousness. Rather, the aide said, it was an opportunity to answer questions in a group setting.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithThe robbing of a wildlife refuge in Nevada House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday MORE (D-Wash.), the aide said, has been meeting with various factions of the Democratic caucus, including the Progressive Caucus and the Blue Dog Coalition, to build support.

The NDAA spat is the latest in a series of skirmishes between Democratic leadership and progressive firebrands, including over the defense budget. Leadership had to pull a budget resolution from a floor vote earlier this year over progressive opposition to the defense figure, and in order to pass the defense appropriations bill, paired it with the spending bill for labor, health and human services, and education.

Most recently, Democrats have been left riven after Pelosi decided to move the $4.6 billion border-aid bill. Progressives wanted a bill that had stricter rules on care for migrants, but House moderates threw their support behind the Senate version, dooming a more progressive bill.

The border bill passed though 95 Democrats bucked Pelosi and voted “no”; just seven Republicans voted “no.”

Pelosi’s remarks to Dowd have led to a public fight with Ocasio-Cortez and her allies.

“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi told Dowd. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

Ocasio-Cortez shot back on Twitter, “that public ‘whatever’ is called public sentiment.”

The NDAA has been signed into law for nearly 60 years straight and is considered a must-pass bill because of the authorities it provides the military. It passed out of the House Armed Services Committee last month on a largely party-line vote, with just GOP Reps. Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Fauci 'aspirationally hopeful' of a vaccine by winter Pentagon: 'No corroborating evidence' yet to validate troop bounty allegations Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police MORE (N.Y.) and Don Bacon (Neb.) siding with Democrats.

Republicans argue the defense budget should be $750 billion, citing testimony from Defense officials on the need for 3 to 5 percent year-over-year budget growth in order to restore readiness and compete with Russia and China.

“Unfortunately, partisan provisions in this bill have robbed it of bipartisan support,” the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryRussian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide House panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House Armed Services votes to make Pentagon rename Confederate-named bases in a year MORE (Texas), said in a statement Tuesday. “Through this bill, House Democrats are forcing our troops to pay the price for their political disputes with the president.”

In addition to the dollar figure, Republicans are deeply opposed to provisions that would block the Pentagon from deploying a low-yield nuclear warhead, restrict the president’s ability to tap Pentagon funds for a border wall and loosen the ability to transfer detainees out of the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

A Republican committee aide would not explicitly say the minority will vote against the bill this week, but said the concerns members had during the committee’s markup remain. Republicans will factor in considerations including which amendments Democrats allow to get a vote and how the floor debate goes when deciding how to vote, the aide said.

The aide said Republicans would not shoulder responsibility if the bill fails because “it’s the majority’s job to craft a coalition that can pass a bill on the House floor.”

Democrats are expected to bring up several amendments on the floor with progressive priorities in an effort to win their votes, including amendments to reverse President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Trump confirms 2018 US cyberattack on Russian troll farm Trump tweets his support for Goya Foods amid boycott MORE’s transgender military ban and block military action against Iran.

Progressives are also eyeing an amendment to repeal the 2001 war authorization, which Democrats fear Trump could use to justify military action against Iran. The efforts to pass the amendments have taken on new urgency since Trump acknowledged being minutes away from launching a military strike against Iran last month.

The Iran amendment is sponsored by Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaSome in Congress want to keep sending our troops to Afghanistan House panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal It's time to eliminate land-based nuclear missiles MORE (D-Calif.), the No. 3 leader of the Progressive Caucus who has expressed concern in the past with a $733 billion defense budget. But Khanna backed the NDAA in the Armed Services Committee and is urging progressives to follow suit on the floor as the best chance to stand up to Trump on Iran. Khanna expects his Iran amendment to pass.

“It will be hard for members to vote against a bill that is the primary check on the president’s ability to go to war in Iran,” Khanna told The Hill.

Juliegrace Brufke contributed.