Negotiators kick off defense bill talks amid border wall, Iran debates

Negotiators kick off defense bill talks amid border wall, Iran debates
© Greg Nash

House and Senate negotiators officially kicked off talks Thursday to reconcile their versions of the annual defense policy bill with several thorny debates looming over them.

Chief among them is how to deal with Pentagon funding that has been tapped for President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE’s border wall.

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Negotiators will also wrangle with an amendment meant to block Trump from taking military action against Iran, a provision that has received renewed attention as Trump debates how to respond to attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

Ahead of the first official meeting — dubbed the “pass the gavel” meeting — the leaders of the Armed Services committees would not indicate where they will land on those and other issues.

“I appreciate the questions, but we’re not going to tell you how we’re going to have an outcome here at this press conference, in part because we don’t know what that outcome is yet,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithTop Democrats warn against withdrawing from treaty that allows observation flights over Russia This year, let's cancel the Nobel Prize in economics Pentagon space agency to request .6 billion over five years: report MORE (D-Wash.) told reporters. “That’s the nature of a conference committee.”

Smith was speaking to reporters alongside Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTurkey sanctions face possible wall in GOP Senate Senate confirms Trump's Air Force secretary pick The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump declares 'case closed' as text messages raise new questions MORE (R-Okla.), Senate Armed Services ranking member Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedErdoğan got the best of Trump, experts warn Senators fear Syria damage 'irreversible' after Esper, Milley briefing This week: Congress returns to chaotic Washington MORE (D-R.I.) and House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Furious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Five ways Trump's Syria decision spells trouble MORE (R-Texas).

Though Thursday marked the first formal meeting of the conference committee, staffers and key lawmakers have been talking behind the scenes for months.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon announced it was taking $3.6 billion from 127 military construction projects to build 175 miles of wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, in line with Trump’s emergency declaration at the beginning of the year.

The Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would replace that $3.6 billion, while the House’s would not.

A school of thought has emerged ahead of the NDAA negotiations that the issue is an appropriations issue not an authorization one since the projects losing money to the wall are authorized for five years regardless.

As such, questions have emerged over whether negotiators will decide to be silent on the issue altogether, kicking the fight exclusively to the government funding bill.

Smith said Thursday no decision has been made on how to handle backfilling the military construction funds.

Despite the controversial issues facing negotiators, the committee leaders expressed hope they could continue the 58-year streak of getting the NDAA signed into law.

“All four of us are determined to do everything we possibly can to make it 59,” Thornberry said. “This is not just policy differences and so forth. There are flesh and blood men and women serving our country right now all over the world who are affected by the decisions we make, as well as adversaries and allies that are watching what we do.”

In addition to the border wall and Iran, lawmakers will need to find compromises on issues ranging from U.S. military support to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen to Trump’s transgender military ban to Pentagon funds being used at Trump-owned properties.