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 SmithHouse panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday Overnight Defense: Democrats blast Trump handling of Russian bounty intel | Pentagon leaders set for House hearing July 9 | Trump moves forward with plan for Germany drawdown MORE (D-Wash.) and ranking member Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryRussian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide House panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House Armed Services votes to make Pentagon rename Confederate-named bases in a year 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 PocanThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: DC's Bowser says protesters and nation were 'assaulted' in front of Lafayette Square last month; Brazil's Bolsonaro, noted virus skeptic, tests positive for COVID-19 Steyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary Celebrities fundraise for Markey ahead of Massachusetts Senate primary MORE (Wis.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeState legislatures consider US Capitol's Confederate statues House eyes votes to remove symbols of Confederates from Capitol Nina Turner addresses Biden's search for a running mate MORE (Calif.) organized the letter. It was signed by 27 other Democrats, including firebrand “squad” members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 | Park Police did not record radio transmissions during June 1 sweep of White House protesters | Court upholds protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears Biden-Sanders 'unity task force' rolls out platform recommendations Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarTucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressives zero in on another House chairman in primary Ocasio-Cortez pitches interns to work for her instead of McConnell MORE (Mass.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibDemocrats see victory in Trump culture war The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid 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.

“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.”