The Year Ahead: Dems look to check Trump on defense

The defense dynamic on Capitol Hill will shift in the coming year as Democrats take control of the House.

Democrats have eyed checking Trump on a host of defense issues from the budget to nuclear weapons.


Republicans, though, will still control the Senate, setting up a number of potential fights as the two chambers work through the annual defense policy bill and other defense-related issues.

Here are some of the top defense stories to watch in 2019.


The defense budget

Barely a few months into fiscal year 2019, the fiscal 2020 defense budget fight has already gone through several stages of whiplash.

The original plan was for the administration to propose a $733 billion defense budget, which the Pentagon said was based on what it needs to carry out the National Defense Strategy.

But in October, President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE surprised the defense world by ordering a $700 billion budget, citing concerns about rising deficits.

Now, though, after defense hawks and Pentagon officials ramped up their lobbying, Trump is eying a $750 billion defense budget proposal, reportedly as a negotiating tactic. 

Regardless of what number Trump comes in at when the budget is officially released next year, it is Congress’ job to authorize and appropriate money.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTop Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal Austin, Milley to testify on Afghanistan withdrawal The Pentagon budget is already out of control: Some in Congress want to make it worse MORE (R-Okla.), who was arguing $733 billion should be considered a floor, will be sympathetic to a $750 billion budget. Technically, $733 billion is flat year-over-year because of inflation, and Inhofe has said that he’d ideally want a 3 to 5 percent increase over this year.

But the presumptive incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithStumbling plutonium pit project reveals DOE's uphill climb of nuclear modernization Congress should control its appetite for legacy programs when increasing defense budget House panel advances 8B defense bill MORE (D-Wash.), has called this year’s $716 billion figure “too high” and has said finding cuts would be a priority for him as chairman.

To get to any of the figures under discussion, party leadership will have to agree to a deal to raise budget caps as the last deal expires. The law setting the caps remains in place through 2021. In the past, Democrats have agreed to raise defense spending if there is also an increase in nondefense spending.


Saudi Arabia

The Senate is poised send a major rebuke to Trump and Saudi Arabia this week, but the issue is likely to linger throughout the coming year.

The vote this week is on a resolution that would withdraw U.S. troops in or affecting Yemen unless they are fighting al Qaeda. The country is in the midst of a civil war between a Saudi-back government and Iranian-supported rebels. The war has sparked a humanitarian crisis, leading to calls for the U.S. to end its support for the Saudi coalition.

Supporters and opponent alike are predicting it has enough votes to pass the Senate, but the House has no plans to take up it this year.

House Democrats, though, have pledged to revive their version of the resolution next year when they control the chamber.

Because next year is a new Congress, the Senate would also have to re-pass its version. Supporters have said they see no reason why their bill wouldn’t pass again next year if it is approved this week as expected.

Senators are also beginning work on two other proposals to target Saudi Arabia with the expectation that work will continue into next year.

One is a wide-ranging bill that would, among other things, mandate sanctions on those responsible for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The other is a nonbinding resolution that would call Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “complicit” in Khashoggi’s killing.


Space Force 

The Trump administration has said it wants to stand up Space Force in next year’s defense policy bill and plans to send Congress its legislative proposal in February.

But some lawmakers are wary about the costs and question whether a separate branch of the military is the right way to handle the Pentagon’s shortfalls in space.

Smith is among the skeptics, announcing his opposition to Space Force in September and arguing a separate branch is not the most cost effective way to improve the military’s prioritization of space.

Inhofe has said he has an open mind about the idea but is awaiting more cost details.

In September, a widely leaked Air Force memo pegged the costs in the first five years at $13 billion. Supporters of Space Force accused the Air Force of inflating the costs to drive opposition.


Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who is leading the Pentagon’s planning, has estimated the costs will be in the single-digit billions, likely falling between $5 billion and $10 billion.


Nuclear weapons

One of Smith’s top concerns has been the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and Trump’s moves to withdraw from arms control agreements has added to his worries.

Smith opposed the Obama administration’s modernization plans, arguing they were unaffordable.

Trump not only wants to modernize U.S. nuclear forces, but also add capabilities including so-called low-yield weapons.

The administration argues such weapons are necessary as a deterrent, but opponents worry they will lower the threshold for the willingness of the United States to use nuclear weapons.

Democrats lost a battle this past year to block funding for the low-yield warheads, but are hoping to revive the issue in the coming year when they have control of the House. 

Trump also plans to withdraw from a Cold War-era arms treaty with Russia known as the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Congress is limited in its power to prevent Trump from withdrawing from the treaty, but it could block funding for any new missiles that would be out of compliance with the accord.

Inhofe, though, has supported Trump’s nuclear plans. At a recent speech, he said he and Smith will have to “sit down and talk about” nuclear issues, calling Smith’s position a “mistake.”


The Middle East and Afghanistan

U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan for 17 years, with little sign of an end any time soon.

The administration insists its strategy is working, citing signs the Taliban is more willing to negotiate. Militarily, though, officers have acknowledged a “stalemate.”

Lawmakers are likely to continue pressing the issue, as they did when Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie recently testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and acknowledged the military stalemate.

Meanwhile, lawmakers also have questions about the administration’s plans for Iraq and Syria with the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) nearing its end. In particular lawmakers want to know the plans for U.S. troops in Syria.

Earlier this year, Trump said U.S. troops would be leaving Syria “very soon.” More recently, though, administration officials have signaled a long-term presence by talking about the need to counter Iran.

Under questioning from lawmakers, military officers have insisted their mission remains solely focused on ISIS, but have acknowledged countering Iran is a byproduct of having U.S. troops in Syria. Expect lawmakers to press the administration for more answers on the issue in the year ahead.