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Progressives demand defense budget cuts amid coronavirus pandemic

Progressives demand defense budget cuts amid coronavirus pandemic
© Greg Nash

Nearly 30 Democrats are demanding that leaders of the House Armed Services Committee cut the defense budget amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Pentagon set for tighter virus restrictions as top officials tests positive | Military sees 11th COVID-19 death | House Democrats back Senate language on Confederate base names House Democrats back slower timeline for changing Confederate base names Overnight Defense: White House suggests stripping Confederate base names in exchange for repealing tech liability shield | Biden faces mounting hurdles to rejoining Iran deal | Military coronavirus cases up MORE (D-Wash.) and ranking member Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Formal negotiations inch forward on defense bill with Confederate base name language | Senators look to block B UAE arms sales | Trump administration imposes Iran sanctions over human rights abuses Defense bill moves to formal negotiations with Confederate name fight looming Overnight Defense: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake' MORE (R-Texas), the Democrats, most of whom are in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, urged the panel's top lawmakers to authorize a smaller defense budget in this year’s policy bill compared to last year’s.

“These are unparalleled times. We encourage you to constrain defense spending during this pandemic so that we can defeat the greatest threat to our nation – the coronavirus,” the Democrats wrote in the letter released Tuesday.

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Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanCapitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election MORE (Wis.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Top contender for Biden Defense chief would be historic pick Overnight Defense: 5 US service members killed in international peacekeeping helicopter crash in Egypt | Progressives warn Biden against Defense nominee with contractor ties | Trump executive order to ban investment in Chinese military-linked companies MORE (Calif.) organized the letter. It was signed by 27 other Democrats, including firebrand “squad” members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez defends Harry Styles wearing dress on Vogue cover: 'It looks wonderful' Democrats' squabbling vindicates Biden non-campaign GOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarGOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyGOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' Pelosi faces caucus divisions in Biden era Record number of Black women elected to Congress in 2020 MORE (Mass.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks GOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations MORE (Mich.).

“America needs a coronavirus cure, not more war,” the letter said. “We need more testing, not more bombs. In order to reopen our nation in a data-driven, safe manner, we need to focus our spending efforts on the millions of additional coronavirus tests and tens of thousands of additional contract tracers we will need, as well as covering treatment costs, developing therapeutics, and distributing future vaccines.”

Twenty-nine Democrats withholding their support for the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) could complicate efforts to pass the bill in the House later this year if Republicans were to vote against it.

In 2019, Republicans voted against the initial House version of the bill, meaning it had to pass on Democratic support alone. After a compromise version of the NDAA emerged from negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate that led to the removal of several progressive priorities, House Republicans supported the measure and it easily passed despite a handful of progressives voting against it.

Defense budget analysts have predicted cuts once the coronavirus pandemic ends because of fiscal pressures such as rising federal deficits.

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Smith has suggested lawmakers will need to “reevaluate” the entire federal budget, including defense allocations, after the pandemic subsides.

But this year’s NDAA is expected to follow a two-year budget deal Congress approved in 2019 that set the fiscal 2021 defense budget at about $740 billion. Last year’s NDAA was about $738 billion.

And while progressives are arguing the pandemic should prompt the United States to reassess its priorities and spend less on defense and more on areas such as public health, defense hawks argue the security threats that drove spending at the Department of Defense (DOD) before the pandemic have not changed.

“I bristle a little bit at the notion that, well of course DOD’s got to get their budget cut,” Thornberry told reporters on a call earlier this month. “The world's not going to be any safer on the other side of COVID[-19].”

Thornberry has also said he expects the initial House version of the bill to be more bipartisan than the 2019 version.

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“I think that there is a good chance that we will have a bipartisan bill this year,” Thornberry said on the call.

Smith has said he has learned from last year’s bill what is possible to get signed into law with the Senate and White House controlled by Republicans.

“We're going to explore the realm of the possible,” Smith told reporters last month. “I've got to get the bill out of committee, off the House floor and get a conference report that we're all agreed to. And that means that I've got to get 218 members — Democrats, Republicans, some combination thereof — and 60 senators and the president to agree to it. And there’s a lot of different issues there and a lot of things involved, and it's an art project.”