Trump wall endangers must-pass defense bill

Trump wall endangers must-pass defense bill
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Talks on the annual defense policy bill are hitting a wall — President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE's border wall.

Negotiators in the House and Senate say they are struggling to reach a compromise on several issues in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) related to the wall, dragging the must-pass bill into a quagmire that has bedeviled multiple legislative efforts in recent years.

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The border wall was always expected to be among the most difficult issues in this year's NDAA conference discussions. But grievances from the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees that have spilled into public from the private negotiations suggest a murky path forward for a bill that has been signed into law for nearly 60 years straight.

“I want to be really clear about this: There is one, and only one, reason why we’re not making progress on the bill, and that’s the wall,” House Armed Services Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons House passes defense bill to establish Space Force, paid family leave for federal workers Pentagon leaders: Trump clemencies won't affect military order and discipline MORE (D-Wash.) said.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeLankford to be named next Senate Ethics chairman Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Gabbard calls for congressional inquiry over Afghanistan war report MORE (R-Okla.) said separately that negotiations are “not going well” and that the “border issue is probably the one that is the biggest issue.”

The House version of the NDAA is full of hot-button topics apart from the border that were seen as nonstarters in the GOP-controlled Senate: an attempt to block U.S. military action against Iran, a reversal of Trump’s transgender military ban and a ban on the deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons, among others.

The House NDAA passed in a party-line, 220-197 vote in July, while the Senate version passed in a bipartisan, 86-8 vote in June.

The non-border issues have remained contentious, too. Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaOvernight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons House passes defense bill to establish Space Force, paid family leave for federal workers Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' MORE (D-Calif.), who sponsored the Iran amendment, said this week that is has been “a tough lift” during negotiations.

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Meanwhile, the House has launched an impeachment inquiry into Trump that has taken up most of the oxygen in Washington and dimmed hopes for major breakthroughs on legislation.

But top lawmakers are pinning stalled NDAA negotiations squarely on the border wall.

“Impeachment’s got nothing to do with it,” Smith said. “And I think all the other issues would not be that difficult to resolve.”

The wall has prominently stymied efforts at passing spending bills in recent years. The government shut down for 35 days in late December and January over border wall funding, and Congress passed a stopgap spending measure in September rather than a full year of appropriations because of an impasse on Trump’s signature border project

But the defense policy bill is deeply embroiled in the issue after Trump tapped into about $6.1 billion in Pentagon funding in order to build the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

After Trump declared a national emergency over the border at the beginning of the year, the Pentagon announced in September it was taking $3.6 billion from 127 military construction projects to build 175 miles of wall.

Separately, the Pentagon has also transferred $2.5 billion from various Department of Defense (DOD) accounts into its counter-drug fund for about 135 miles of wall.

House Democrats, furious at what they describe as Trump circumventing Congress’s power of the purse, included in the NDAA provisions to ban the use of Pentagon funds on the wall and limit the department's ability to transfer money between accounts.

The Senate’s version, meanwhile, includes none of that and would backfill the $3.6 billion in military construction funding taken for the wall.

Asked what specific border wall provisions are causing the impasse, Smith said it’s “all” of them.

Still, Smith said he spoke this week with the White House about the issue, which he said means “we understand now where the differences are” and that will help “bridge that gap to get a bill done.”

The White House had no comment on talks with Smith. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.

With only about 20 legislative days left in 2019, Inhofe is pushing a backup plan to renew authorities that expire at the end of the year. On Tuesday, he plans to introduce what he is referring to as a “skinny” NDAA.

According to a summary Inhofe showed reporters in the Senate basement this week, the skinny bill would cover a list of authorized military construction projects, transfer authorities, special and bonus pay for troops, benefits and pay for civilians in conflict zones, “long-lead efficiencies” for the F-35 program, operations and maintenance for cyber capabilities, counter-ISIS authorities and authorization for the supply line for operations in Afghanistan, among others.

Inhofe and his office insist he still hopes for a deal on the larger NDAA, describing his introduction of the skinny bill as a way to make it available if it’s needed before time runs out. Inhofe put the odds at resorting to the skinny bill at 50-50.

“Just in case, in case it falls apart, we’ll have a bill waiting in the Senate so our kids get paid,” he said.

But Inhofe’s skinny bill effort, too, appears doomed in the House over Trump’s wall. Smith said he would not support it if it “allows [the president] to take money for the wall.”

“It’s a victory for them on the wall,” Smith said of the skinny bill. “Inhofe can go ahead and dress it up like he’s making some offer, but he’s not. He’s just finding another way to give the president the ability to steal money out of DOD because the skinny bill doesn’t prohibit him from doing that, and if he’s not prohibited from doing it, he can do it.”

Despite the impasse, negotiators, mindful of the 58-year streak of passing an NDAA, insist they are not giving up.

“We’ve made progress, but we still have critical issues to address, and we’re mutually determined to sit down to try to address them,” said Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedGabbard calls for congressional inquiry over Afghanistan war report Gillibrand demands hearing following release of 'Afghanistan Papers' Republicans raise concerns over Trump pardoning service members MORE (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The clock is working against us, but we’re still at it, we’re still talking, we’re still engaged.”

Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryHouse passes defense bill to establish Space Force, paid family leave for federal workers The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - Democrats to release articles of impeachment today Former White House physician Ronny Jackson to run for Congress MORE (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he, Smith, Inhofe and Reed are “willing to meet however long, however often we possibly can.”

“Everybody wants to find, wants to get to an agreement. No small thing that this bill, 58 straight years it’s been signed into law. You don’t want to be part of the one that breaks that streak,” Thornberry said. “I don’t think anybody wants to throw the towel in. We’re going to keep working. But … deadlines are approaching.”