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 JayapalNYT editorial board endorses Warren, Klobuchar for Democratic nomination for president Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Jayapal endorses Sanders Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements 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 PelosiDemocrats worry a speedy impeachment trial will shut out public Schiff huddles in Capitol with impeachment managers Media's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle 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-CortezNYT editorial board endorses Warren, Klobuchar for Democratic nomination for president Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Jayapal endorses Sanders Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements MORE (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarMedia's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Jayapal endorses Sanders Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements MORE (D-Minn.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibCongressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Jayapal endorses Sanders Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements Hillicon Valley: Biden calls for revoking tech legal shield | DHS chief 'fully expects' Russia to try to interfere in 2020 | Smaller companies testify against Big Tech 'monopoly power' MORE (D-Mich.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyCongressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Jayapal endorses Sanders Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements Ayanna Pressley's 'squad' of congresswomen offers support after she opens up about alopecia 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 HuffmanDemocrats reach cusp of impeachment Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Pelosi heading to Madrid for UN climate change convention 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 SchakowskyHouse Democrats may call new impeachment witnesses if Senate doesn't Lawmaker calls for hearing into MLB cheating scandal Big Pharma looks to stem losses after trade deal defeat 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 SmithLawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown Overnight Defense: Foreign policy takes center stage at Democratic debate | House delivers impeachment articles to Senate | Dems vow to force new vote on Trump's border wall House Armed Services chairman exploring options to stop Trump from taking .2B in DOD funds for wall 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 StefanikLawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown Overnight Energy: Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel | GOP lawmakers push back on bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners | Green groups sue Trump over California fracking plans Republicans push back on bipartisan bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners 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 ThornberryLawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown GOP senator on Trump soliciting foreign interference: 'Those are just statements' Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel 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 TrumpTrump rails against impeachment in speech to Texas farmers Trump administration planning to crack down on 'birth tourism': report George Conway on Trump adding Dershowitz, Starr to legal team: 'Hard to see how either could help' 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) KhannaSanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements Rep. Ro Khanna: You can't claim you're resisting President Trump and hand the Pentagon a blank check Sanders campaign co-chair calls for progressive unity amid senators' fallout 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.