Democrats voice confidence Pentagon bill will survive party squabbling

Democrats voice confidence Pentagon bill will survive party squabbling
© Greg Nash

Democrats voiced confidence on Wednesday that they will be able to pass a sweeping defense policy bill this week despite continuing intraparty squabbles born from the fallout over a border aid bill.

“I feel confident the support is there for the [defense bill]. I think there will be a supermajority of Democrats who will be supportive,” Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), a leading progressive, told The Hill on Wednesday evening.

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“You’ve seen the good work of members on the committee, not just from the moderate Blue Dogs and New Democrats but also the progressives who are supportive,” he added. “That will translate to a strong vote coming from us.”

The bill survived an initial procedural vote Wednesday afternoon when the rule for floor debate was approved 234-197, largely along party lines. Final passage is expected Friday.

With few, if any, Republicans expected to back the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Democrats will need support from every faction of their party to get the bill over the finish line. 

Progressive Caucus leaders said Wednesday they remain undecided on how to vote on a $733 billion bill they consider too costly. But they showed an inclination to support it if amendments to constrain President TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE’s war-making powers are added. A handful of progressives, including Reps. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) and Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaMarkey fundraises ahead of Kennedy primary challenge The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes MORE (D-Calif.), have pledged to vote yes.

“We’ll have to see what passes on the floor,” Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalProgressives push for changes to Pelosi drug pricing plan Pelosi woos progressives on prescription drug pricing plan Democrats ignore Asian American and Pacific Islander voters at their peril MORE (D-Wash.) said. The amendments are “important because they’re in the context of an administration that is not taking authorization of Congress for military force in other parts of the world. It’s true in Yemen, it’s true in Iran, it’s true in Venezuela. There’s a lot of places where Congress is just being left out by a lawless administration.”

Jayapal added that the border fight “is why you’re seeing a lot of concern” from progressives about the NDAA.

Progressives are still smarting after losing a fight last month over a $4.6 billion border bill they wanted to include more stringent rules on care for migrants.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden blasts Trump, demands he release transcript of call with foreign leader Pelosi wants to change law to allow a sitting president to be indicted Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Walmart to stop selling e-cigarettes | Senators press FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately | House panel tees up e-cig hearing for next week MORE (D-Calif.) added fuel to the fire in a high-profile interview over the weekend by dismissing a quartet of liberal darlings: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezMarkey fundraises ahead of Kennedy primary challenge The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Progressives push for changes to Pelosi drug pricing plan MORE (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarGOP Senate candidate said Republicans have 'dual loyalties' to Israel Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Omar asks Twitter what it's doing in response to Trump spreading 'lies that put my life at risk' MORE (D-Minn.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibMarkey fundraises ahead of Kennedy primary challenge The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Omar says she hopes Netanyahu not reelected MORE (D-Mich.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyDemocrats blast HUD for removing LGBT language from grant competition Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Omar asks Twitter what it's doing in response to Trump spreading 'lies that put my life at risk' MORE (D-Mass.).

In the first Democratic caucus meeting since the border blowup, Pelosi scolded Democrats for publicly taking shots at each other and pleaded for unity.

“You got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it. But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just OK,” Pelosi said at a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday, according to a source in the room.

But on the NDAA, lawmakers and sources in the room said there were no fireworks as Democratic leaders and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Pentagon waiting for Saudi assessment on attack | Defense bill talks begin | Border fight takes centerstage | Pentagon finalizes .5B in wall contracts | US withholds Afghan aid citing corruption House Armed Services panel gets classified briefing on Saudi attacks Negotiators kick off defense bill talks amid border wall, Iran debates MORE (D-Wash.) rallied support for the bill.

Smith told his colleagues that it’s a good bill and Democrats need to pass it.

“We didn’t hear any concerns in there. Everyone who spoke, spoke in favor of the bill,” Smith told reporters as he left the room.

A source in the room concurred with Smith. During the open-microphone period, all of the speakers were in favor of the bill, the source said.

Later Wednesday, Smith and Jayapal were spotted having an animated conversation on the House floor. Afterward, Jayapal told The Hill that the chairman “has been doing a phenomenal job of trying to address the issues that we have.”

“We think it’s more progressive than anything before, but it still has to get better,” Jayapal said. “People are still waiting for these amendments on the floor that are going to be very, very important.”

She also said she expects the funding issue to be addressed outside of the NDAA, citing ongoing talks.

If all Republicans vote against the NDAA, just 18 Democratic “no” votes could sink it.

Failure to pass the NDAA, a bill that has been signed into law for nearly 60 years in a row, would be a major embarrassment for Democrats.

“I’ve been working very hard to talk to members of the Democratic caucus about how critical it is,” Rep. Mikie SherrillRebecca (Mikie) Michelle SherrillDemocrats ramp up calls to investigate NOAA Overnight Energy: House moves to block Trump drilling | House GOP rolls out proposal to counter offshore drilling ban | calls mount for NOAA probe The Hill's Morning Report - US coastline readies for Hurricane Dorian to make landfall MORE (D-N.J.), a Navy veteran who sits on the Armed Services Committee. “This is the Democratic version of the National Defense Authorization Act. If this is not passed through the caucus, then the negotiating position is the Senate version. And I think that would be a real loss for the House.”

Asked about her message to progressives who remain undecided, Sherrill highlighted the amendment process.

“I assume that if any members of the Progressive Caucus have concerns about the NDAA, then they would have put forward amendments to help make it stronger,” she said.

Republicans were disinclined to support the bill because they believe the defense budget should be $750 billion and because they oppose several policy provisions, including ones related to the border, nuclear weapons and Guantánamo Bay.

Their opposition calcified Wednesday when Democrats changed the bill through what’s known as a “self-executing” amendment, or an amendment that is added without a separate vote.

The self-executing amendment itself is sweeping. It gives all federal employees 12 weeks of paid family leave, repeals the so-called military widow’s tax, guarantees a 3.1 percent pay raise for troops, allows service members to sue the government for medical malpractice and adds another 70 visas to the Afghan special immigrant visa program.

“I was shocked to have a self-executing amendment on serious things that we’ve grappled with for years and just wave a magic wand and pretend that you can solve these mandatory spending issues that way,” Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryNegotiators kick off defense bill talks amid border wall, Iran debates Defense bill talks set to start amid wall fight House rejects GOP motion on replacing Pentagon funding used on border wall MORE (Texas), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, told The Hill on Wednesday.

Thornberry said “we’ll see” when asked if he’s a definite “no,” but said based on the amendments getting a vote, the bill “may get worse.”

With Republican votes unlikely, Democrats teed up hundreds of amendments on liberal priorities to wrangle progressive votes.

Specifically, progressives are tracking amendments to prevent a military strike on Iran, block arms sales and other military support to Saudi Arabia and limit the use of the existing war authorizations.

An internal fact sheet on the bill circulated among Democratic members highlighted the Iran amendment, as well as one that aims to reverse Trump’s transgender military ban. It further stressed the 12 weeks of paid family leave in the self-executing amendment.

“Every federal employee now in this bill will have paid family leave, which is something we’ve tried to do for a very long time,” Rep. Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyDem leader says party can include abortion opponents Lawmakers jump-start talks on privacy bill The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller testimony gives Trump a boost as Dems ponder next steps MORE (D-Ill.), a member of the Progressive Caucus, said. “The kinds of things that we do to limit our going to war — it’s just a really fantastic bill.”

Another amendment would trim $16.8 billion from a war fund, bringing the bill’s total to about $716 billion.

Ocasio-Cortez said the dollar figure is “always a concern,” but added that “qualitative” policy amendments are more important to her.

Omar similarly said she’ll “see where we go” based on the amendments.

“We are dealing with things like poverty. We’re dealing with less investment in education. We’re having a climate crisis. We have problems with getting full investment infrastructure,” she said. “We want to make sure that when we’re budgeting, that we invest in those things and that we don’t continue to spend money in perpetual wars and having military bases in many parts of the world where we don’t have to.”