GOP senator: House Democrats using Space Force as leverage in border wall fight

Anna Moneymaker

House Democrats have sought to use President Trump’s Space Force as leverage in a fight over his border wall during negotiations with Senate Republicans on the annual defense policy bill, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said.

“Space Force is the thing that they think the president wants the most, therefore, they can say, use that as leverage,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told The Hill on Wednesday. “But it hasn’t worked.”

A House Armed Services Committee staffer responded by telling The Hill they “won’t pretend to know what he means by ‘leveraging Space Force.’”

{mosads}“Both bills had provisions for a Space Force, and we know the administration has been vocal about the necessity for Space Force, so it’s no secret that leadership has been working through the conference process to arrive at a point where a Space Force could be a reality,” the staffer said.

Still, the staffer added, “the Space Force is something the Democratic Caucus views as poor use of resources, which is why it hasn’t been something automatically accepted by both chambers.”

Bicameral negotiations over the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) have struggled to come to a compromise, with Inhofe and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) largely blaming issues related to the border wall.

“The sticking point is, and will continue to be, how to handle funding related to the wall,” the House Armed Services staffer said.

Negotiations have also mostly paused this week, with the House in recess and Smith leading a congressional delegation in the Middle East.

Following Trump’s decision to unilaterally move $3.6 billion in military construction funding and $2.5 billion in Pentagon counter-drug funding to the wall, House Democrats included in their version of 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 includes none of that and would backfill the $3.6 billion in military construction funding taken for the wall.

Space Force, meanwhile, has been viewed as a largely settled issue after both the House and Senate included some version of a space military branch in their versions of the bill. While differences in the name of the new service and how to structure it needed to be resolved, lawmakers in both parties generally agreed the military needs to place a greater emphasis on space.

Proponents of a Space Force have argued it is necessary to counter threats from Russia and China, such as anti-satellite missiles.

The House’s version mirrors a bipartisan proposal for a Space Corps that passed the lower chamber in 2017. The bill would create a Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force that is led by a commandant, who would join the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Senate has traditionally been the chamber more opposed to a space military service. The House’s 2017 Space Corps plan died after fierce pushback in the upper chamber.

But the Senate ended up including the space service in this year’s NDAA. The Senate version uses Trump’s term, Space Force, and would be led by a commander that would join the Joint Chiefs of Staff after a year.

Inhofe said he still thinks the U.S. military is already “doing a good job in space right now,” but that Space Force is “something the president feels strongly about.”

And, he said, House Democrats have tried to use “anything the president really wants” as leverage in the negotiations on the NDAA.

Inhofe has introduced what he’s referring to as a “skinny” NDAA as a backup plan should lawmakers not come to a compromise in time to pass the bill before the end of the year, though Smith has also said he’s opposed to the skinny bill.

The skinny bill covers authorizations for military construction projects, transfer authorities, special and bonus pay for troops, pay for civilians in conflict zones, authority to buy F-35 fighter jets in “economic order quantities” from 2021 to 2023, operations and maintenance for cyber capabilities, and some authorities for counter-ISIS and Afghanistan operations.

Base pay, including a planned 3.1 percent pay raise, continues even without an NDAA.

Asked about the base pay after he argued “the kids don’t eat” if at least his skinny bill doesn’t pass by the end of the year, Inhofe stressed bonuses such as hazard pay and flight pay need to be reauthorized.

Despite a continued impasse over the border wall, Inhofe said this week that progress has been made on the overall bill after Smith sent him a counteroffer, but added the document included “nothing real big.”

“We’re a little closer than we were,” Inhofe told reporters Tuesday after reading the counteroffer. “What should have been a reality a month ago is getting a little closer to reality.”

On Wednesday, Inhofe also said negotiators are “very close” on issues related to the Guantanamo Bay detention center, though he would not specify what solution lawmakers are settling on.

The House’s version of the bill would prevent new transfers to Guantanamo. The House bill also did not include a longstanding provision banning transfers from Guantanamo to the United States. The Senate version retained the ban on transfers to the United States, but added an exception for temporary transfers for emergency medical care.

“We’re very close on the Gitmo problem,” Inhofe told reporters. “Obviously, we’re not going to talk about what it is, but I’m just saying that we’re almost there.”

The House Armed Service staffer told The Hill it would be “premature to speculate” about the Guantanamo provisions.

“There are obvious differences in the Gitmo provisions in both bills,” the staffer said, “but it would be premature to speculate where the final provisions will end up, especially as House conferees have largely been back in their districts.”

Tags Adam Smith Donald Trump Jim Inhofe

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