Deal on defense policy bill proves elusive

Deal on defense policy bill proves elusive
© Greg Nash

Plans to finish negotiations on the annual defense policy bill by the end of the week are being tripped up by entrenched positions over President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed MORE’s border wall, Space Force and cancer-linked “forever chemicals.”

Comments from top lawmakers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees on Thursday signaled wide gaps persist on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), despite both sides saying earlier this week that they expected to finish negotiations in the coming days.

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.) said he is hopeful an agreement in principle can be reached before the end of the week, but 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.) was less optimistic.

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“I don’t know, it’s getting more difficult,” Smith said Thursday when asked about finishing negotiations this week.

Inhofe and Smith each blamed the other chamber’s leaders — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSherrod Brown backs new North American trade deal: 'This will be the first trade agreement I've ever voted for' McConnell: Bevin pardons 'completely inappropriate' House panel to hold hearing, vote on Trump's new NAFTA proposal MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Sherrod Brown backs new North American trade deal: 'This will be the first trade agreement I've ever voted for' Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Turf war derails push on surprise medical bills | Bill would tax e-cigarettes to pay for anti-vaping campaign | .5M ad blitz backs vulnerable Dems on drug prices MORE (D-Calif.) — for the lack of progress.

“Sen. Inhofe is negotiating with me in good faith, and we’re meeting on a regular basis,” Smith said. “Meanwhile, McConnell’s on the floor saying Democrats don’t want to do the defense bill because they’re obsessed with impeachment, while we’re negotiating it trying to get an agreement. And the reason that’s a problem is because it begins to appear that Sen. McConnell doesn’t want a bill — he wants a partisan argument.”

In a floor speech Thursday, McConnell accused House Democrats of being “so intent on picking fights with the White House that they decided to play partisan games with our armed forces.”

Inhofe, meanwhile, said he has received a letter from Pelosi’s staff saying she would not bring a defense policy bill to the floor without provisions related to a class of chemicals known as PFAS, which have been leaching into the water supply near military sites.

“A staffer of Pelosi today said that without something in the bill that’s not going to be in the bill she’s will not bring it to the floor,” Inhofe said Wednesday.

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“If that doesn’t work to her liking, then she won’t let us vote on the bill,” Inhofe added Thursday.

Pelosi’s office denied the existence of such a letter.

“There are multiple open items outstanding on the NDAA. Negotiations continue,” a Democratic leadership aide said. “We are not going to negotiate through the press.”

The cancer-linked substance known as PFAS is used in firefighting foam and has contaminated water near at least 425 military sites.

Each chamber’s version of the NDAA contained provisions to stem the spread of PFAS at military sites, as well as broader measures that would force the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the substance on several fronts.

Inhofe has repeatedly said he’s wary of moving a defense bill with PFAS provisions beyond the jurisdiction of the Armed Services Committee. But there’s been significant pressure from the House to keep the PFAS provisions in the legislation.

When asked about Inhofe’s comment on a PFAS letter, Smith said “that’s a bit of a misinterpretation.”

“We want an agreement on PFAS,” Smith said. “We are not holding up the bill, saying we won’t — that’s not my position. I’ve spoken to the Speaker about it. I think PFAS is an enormously important issue. I think we’re going to get an agreement. It’s not going to be as much as we Democrats would like, but I think we’re going to move forward to it.”

Smith added that “the real problem” is Space Force, the border wall and Republicans’ “unwillingness to grant us any policies that are important to us.”

“That makes it difficult for the Speaker to have a caucus that supports the bill,” he said.

Trump took $6.1 billion from Pentagon coffers to begin construction of his border wall. House Democrats responded by including NDAA provisions to block Pentagon funding from being used for the wall, and negotiators have struggled to reach a compromise.

On Space Force, both chambers have provisions to reorganize the military, though neither mirrors what the administration has requested. The House version would mirror a 2017 proposal for Space Corps, while the Senate would create what it calls a Space Force but without rewriting federal statutes to officially create a new military branch.

Inhofe wouldn't discuss the wall or Space Force on Thursday, adding that Smith shouldn’t have discussed them because “we’re in final negotiations."

Smith said Republicans are pushing for a “more robust” Space Force than what's described in either bill.

“So they’re insisting on Space Force, they’re insisting on the wall. OK, we have a lot of policy provisions in our bill as well ... not going to war with Iran; not discriminating against transgender people; doing something to stop the war in Yemen. These are important policy provisions to our caucus," Smith added. "They are unwilling to do any of them, so they are insisting on two very difficult political asks on the wall and Space Force and giving us nothing in return. And that’s a problem.”