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 TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE’s war-making powers are added. A handful of progressives, including Reps. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) and Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaCongress, stop ducking war-declaration authority on Iran The Young Turks' Cenk Uygur: Here's how to choose a president House and Senate head for showdown on must-pass defense bill 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 JayapalHouse Democrats seek to move past rifts with minimum wage bill Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair calls Trump comments about progressive congresswomen 'totally unacceptable' Trump's tweets unify a fractured Democratic Party 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.

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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: Esper officially nominated for Defense secretary | Pentagon silent on Turkey getting Russian missile system | House, Senate headed for clash over defense bill House and Senate head for showdown on must-pass defense bill Overnight Defense: House approves 3 billion defense bill | Liberal sweeteners draw progressive votes | Bill includes measure blocking Trump from military action on Iran 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 voice confidence Pentagon bill will survive party squabbling Freshman members form bipartisan task force on election vulnerabilities ahead of 2020 Hillicon Valley: White House to host social media summit amid Trump attacks | Pelosi says Congress to get election security briefing in July | Senate GOP blocks election security bill | Pro-Trump forum 'quarantined' by Reddit | Democrats press Zuckerberg 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 ThornberryHouse and Senate head for showdown on must-pass defense bill House approves defense bill after adding liberal sweeteners Overnight Defense: Dems confident defense bill will pass despite party infighting | GOP chairman's bill would review US, Saudi ties | Senators briefed on sexual assault allegation against top general 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 SchakowskyDemocrats rush to support Pelosi amid fight with Ocasio-Cortez Pelosi says she's done talking about fight with 'Squad' Democrats voice confidence Pentagon bill will survive party squabbling 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.”