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 TrumpProgressive group launches M pro-Biden ad buy targeting young voters Ilhan Omar: GOP response to calls for police reform 'was vicious' White House considers sweeping travel ban on members, families of the Chinese Communist Party: report 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 SmithThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Facebook — Fauci touts COVID-19 vaccine news Overnight Defense: Panel approves 4.6B bill addressing border wall funds, Confederate name changes | Navy ship fire rages on The robbing of a wildlife refuge in Nevada 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 InhofeLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Senate rejects Paul proposal on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan MORE (R-Okla.), Senate Armed Services ranking member Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Chris Christie says Trump team wasn't aggressive enough early in COVID-19 crisis; Tensions between White House, Fauci boil over Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs Sunday shows - FDA commissioner declines to confirm Trump claim that 99 percent of COVID-19 cases are 'harmless' MORE (D-R.I.) and House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryFormer White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff Trump makes late push for two Texas Republicans 4 Texas GOP congressional primary runoffs to watch 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.