Armed Services chairman dismisses Republican criticisms of $733B defense bill

Armed Services chairman dismisses Republican criticisms of $733B defense bill
© Greg Nash

The Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on Monday defended his version of the annual defense spending bill amid Republican criticisms of the top-line dollar figure and nuclear cuts.

“The Republicans were very articulate over the course of the last eight years about why it’s borderline un-American to vote against the defense bill,” Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithWarren's pledge to avoid first nuclear strike sparks intense pushback Landmark US-Russia arms control treaty poised for final blow Young Democrats look to replicate Ocasio-Cortez's primary path MORE (D-Wash.) told reporters during a breakfast roundtable. “For the issues we’re talking about here, we have to remember the overwhelming majority of this bill is incredibly important and not that controversial.”

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Smith’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would authorize a fiscal  2020 defense budget of $733 billion, which covers the Pentagon and Department of Energy nuclear programs.

The Trump administration, however, proposed a $750 billion defense budget. Republicans argue that’s the minimum needed to ensure the U.S. military is ready to counter Russia and China, citing defense officials' testimony on the need for 3 to 5 percent year-over-year budget growth.

But Smith cited the fact that up until earlier this year, the Pentagon had planned for a $733 defense budget for fiscal 2020.

“I am genuinely concerned, and I think we have enough history with the Pentagon to see it in the past, when they’ve been given more money than perhaps they expected, there is a lot of inefficiency and waste that follows,” Smith said.

Republicans have also come out strongly against the nuclear aspects of the bill.

In particular, the bill would block the deployment of the new submarine-launched low-yield nuclear warhead.

It would also cut funding from the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, the in-development intercontinental ballistic missile meant to replace the Minuteman III. And it would require a study of what it would mean for the United States to adopt a “no first use” nuclear policy.

Smith, though, said it is a “fair assessment” that he did not go as far on nuclear issues as he would have liked.

A senior Republican committee aide told reporters later Monday afternoon the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Mac Thornbery (Texas), and other GOP members have not yet made a decision on how they will vote.

Issues that would "trigger a special look" for Republicans if they stay in the bill as is include the topline dollar figure and nuclear issues, as well as readiness and military personnel accounts, the Republican aide said.

As he shepherds the bill through the House, Smith may need to navigate opposition from progressive Democrats, on top of Republicans.

Progressives have previously balked at the $733 billion figure for the defense budget, tripping up Democratic leadership’s efforts to pass a budget resolution at that level earlier this year.

Smith said he “worked very, very hard” to communicate with both Republicans and the Progressive Caucus as he wrote the bill.

“Every year, you have to think about how do we get the votes in committee and on the floor,” he said.

“It’s also particularly sort of a consideration when this is our first year in the majority in a while," he added. "We’ve tried to put together a bill that I think reflects good, solid national security priorities. But then yes, I can’t say for sure now who will vote for it and who will vote against it. So we have to work that, both on the committee and on the floor.”

Smith also declined to draw “red lines” right now on what he will fight for as the bill moves through the legislative process.

“Obviously, if we’re going to get anything passed, then ultimately the Republican majority in the Senate and the president are going to have to agree to it,” he said. “We will factor that in as we enter into those discussions.”

Updated at 2:07 p.m.