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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 JayapalThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history Rep. Adriano Espaillat tests positive for COVID-19 Overnight Health Care: Trump admin makes changes to speed vaccinations | CDC to order negative tests for international travelers | More lawmakers test positive after Capitol siege MORE (D-Wash.) said Tuesday the bill "has got to get better."

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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 PelosiSunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus Calls grow for 9/11-style panel to probe Capitol attack Do Democrats really want unity? 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-CortezTexas man charged for alleged role in Capitol riots, online death threats to Ocasio-Cortez DC residents jumped at opportunity to pay for meals for National Guardsmen Tensions running high after gun incident near House floor MORE (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarDemocrats poised to impeach Trump again Pence opposes removing Trump under 25th Amendment: reports Pelosi vows to impeach Trump again — if Pence doesn't remove him first MORE (D-Minn.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibBiden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs Overnight Energy: EPA rule exempts many polluting industries from future air regulations | Ex-Michigan governor to be charged over Flint water crisis: report | Officials ousted from White House after papers casting doubt on climate science Ex-Michigan governor to be charged over Flint water crisis: report MORE (D-Mich.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyBelfast's Troubles echo in today's Washington Federal government carries out 13th and final execution under Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history 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 HuffmanTensions running high after gun incident near House floor Scars of Capitol attack permeate high-security inauguration Trust between lawmakers reaches all-time low after Capitol riots 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 SchakowskyFreshman GOP lawmaker apologizes for Hitler quote Newly sworn-in Republican lawmaker condemned by Holocaust Museum after Hitler quote 150 House Democrats support Biden push to reenter Iran nuclear deal 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 SmithOvernight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee Top Senate Democrat backs waiver for Biden Pentagon nominee 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 StefanikLincoln Project hits Stefanik in new ad over support for Trump Wyoming county votes to censure Liz Cheney for Trump impeachment vote Stefanik knocks Albany newspaper over 'childless' characterization 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 ThornberryUnnamed law enforcement banned under the new NDAA Lobbying world Senate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto 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 TrumpNYT: Rep. Perry played role in alleged Trump plan to oust acting AG Arizona GOP censures top state Republicans McCain, Flake and Ducey Biden and UK prime minister discuss NATO, multilateralism during call 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) KhannaHouse Democrats introduce measures to oppose Trump's bomb sale to Saudis House impeaches Trump for second time — with some GOP support Stacey Abrams gets kudos for work in Georgia runoff election 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.