Impeachment battle looms over must-pass defense bill

Impeachment battle looms over must-pass defense bill

Partisan sniping over the House’s impeachment inquiry is seeping into what has been a bipartisan realm in past years: the annual defense policy bill.

House Democrats and Senate Republicans were already pointing fingers at each other over the delay of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), blaming an impasse over funding for President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE’s border wall.

But in recent days, several top Republicans have started laying blame on the impeachment proceedings for crowding out the defense bill as the House and Senate struggle to reconcile their versions of the bill. 

House Democrats insist that’s not the case and are accusing Republicans of trying to set up Democrats to take the blame should a compromise on the NDAA not be reached.

Despite the public bickering, negotiations have continued behind closed doors, with House Armed Services Committee 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.) expressing hope an agreement “in principle” will be reached as soon as the coming week.

“In the meetings, we’re focused on the issues, resolving them, getting the bill done,” Smith said. “I think we have a chance of getting something done by the end of next week. It takes time after that to go through the process … that’s the hope.”

The House held its first public hearings this week in its ongoing impeachment inquiry into whether Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenNew York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Graham invites Giuliani to testify about recent Ukraine trip Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications MORE and his son.

As the House Intelligence Committee’s first hearing was getting underway Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment CNN's Cuomo promotes 'Dirty Donald' hashtag, hits GOP for 'loyalty oath' to Trump MORE (R-Ky.) took to the Senate floor to blast Democrats for “crowding out important legislation for the American people.”

“House Democrats are also slow-walking the National Defense Authorization Act. That’s an essential bill that Congress has passed every year since 1961,” McConnell said.

Several other Republican senators also took to the floor the same day to echo McConnell’s message, and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump greeted with cheers at 120th Army-Navy game Judge orders State Dept. to search for and provide more Ukraine docs Pompeo launches personal Twitter account amid speculation over Senate run MORE similarly highlighted the NDAA as he dismissed the impeachment inquiry as “noise.”

The “noise in Washington, D.C., puts America at risk,” Pompeo said on conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt’s show. “It is absolutely the case that if we don’t pass an NDAA, if we don’t pass Defense appropriation bills, we put the world on notice that we’re not serious about confronting these challenges.”

The floor speeches followed similar remarks the previous week from Senate Armed Services Committee 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.).

"It concerns me to see them prioritizing their misguided attempts to undo the results of the 2016 election through impeachment instead of taking care of our troops with the NDAA," Inhofe said on the Senate floor.

Smith shot back after McConnell’s comments, saying he “didn’t think it was helpful” for either McConnell or Inhofe to give their speeches.

“Unlike any other time that I’ve seen in 23 years on the committee, there has been much, much more partisanship from the Republicans in this process than I’ve ever seen before,” Smith told reporters. “From the very beginning, they seem deeply invested in the idea of blaming Democrats for not passing a defense bill than they are in actually passing a defense bill."

“And we saw the most recent example of this is now, totally bizarre to me, saying that impeachment is stopping us from doing a defense bill,” he continued. “It’s got nothing to do with it. Literally nothing to do with it.”

Smith attributed the attack line to Republicans having “a hard time defending the president on the facts” in the impeachment inquiry.

Despite the sniping, talks on the NDAA have proceeded. The so-called Big Four — Smith, Inhofe, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryConservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' House 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 MORE (R-Texas) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member 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 (D-R.I.) — met Thursday.

Smith said “an enormous amount of progress” was made at the meeting, with negotiators coming to a “good concept of how we need to get to the end here,” Reed said “some challenging issues” remain, but that negotiations are “moving forward.”

Inhofe similarly said “we did resolve a lot of differences” during the meeting.

Still, Inhofe continued to express concern that impeachment was taking time away from the NDAA. If the House votes to impeach, senators are expected to hold the impeachment trial from 12:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. for six days of the week, leaving little time for legislation.

“I’m concerned about that,” he said of impeachment after the Big Four meeting. “What that does is it gives us a great sense of urgency to get this thing done because this has to be done.”

On the substance of the bill, the main fight has been over the border wall.

Trump pulled about $6.1 billion from Pentagon funding to build the wall. Furious House Democrats responded by including in their NDAA provisions to ban the use of Pentagon funds on the wall and limit the Pentagon’s ability to transfer money between accounts.

The Senate’s version does not include those restrictions and would backfill $3.6 billion in military construction funding taken for the wall.

Negotiators have also struggled to find compromises on issues related to Trump’s Space Force, reversing Trump’s transgender military ban and restricting Trump’s ability to take military action against Iran.

Bicameral negotiations on the NDAA officially kicked off in September, though staffers and key lawmakers started talking behind the scenes after the House passed its version in July. The Senate version passed in June. 

Because the conversations started months before the House launched its impeachment inquiry, Reed said it’s “not at all” fair to blame impeachment for the bill’s delay.

“These issues have been with us for months,” he said. “We passed our bill several months ago. The House passed their bill. We have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.”