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Five things to watch in talks on massive defense bill

Five things to watch in talks on massive defense bill
© Bonnie Cash

The House and Senate are expected to begin negotiations in earnest in the coming weeks on a massive defense policy bill President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE has threatened to veto.

Staffers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees have started unofficial talks since both chambers passed their versions of the $740.5 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in July, a congressional aide said. But lawmakers have not yet officially formed a conference committee to reconcile the two bills.

It’s unclear exactly when Congress will vote to go to conference, but the aide said it typically happens about 45 days after each chamber passes its version of the NDAA. Last year’s conference started in September after both chambers passed their versions in June and July.

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Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA over a provision — variations of which are in each bill — that would require the Pentagon to rename military bases named after Confederate leaders.

Here are five issues to watch when the NDAA conference negotiations start.

Confederate base names

By far the issue that has attracted the most attention in this year’s NDAA is whether to force the Pentagon to rename military bases and other Pentagon property that have Confederate monikers.

The Senate’s version of the bill would require bases to be renamed in three years, while the House version of the bill would force the change in one year.

The issue is most prominent in the Army, which has 10 bases named after Confederate military officers.

The fight to change the names gained momentum after this summer’s widespread protests against racial injustice, and Pentagon leaders said they would be open to renaming the Army bases. Proponents of changing the base names argue traitors who fought to preserve slavery should not be honored with a namesake military base and that the names demoralize Black service members.

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But the provisions attracted a Trump veto threat, with the White House arguing the bill is “part of a sustained effort to erase from the history of the nation those who do not meet an ever-shifting standard of conduct.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeHouse Democrats back slower timeline for changing Confederate base names Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee Overnight Defense: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake' MORE (R-Okla.) has assured Trump the provision won’t be in the final version of the bill.

But it’s unclear how he hopes to remove it after it received bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. 

The Insurrection Act

This summer’s protests also thrust the 1807 Insurrection Act into the forefront of national debate.

Trump first threatened to invoke the law in June in order to send active-duty troops into cities to quell protests.

He alluded to the possibility again in late August, though the White House said days later he does not want to invoke the Insurrection Act.

After Trump’s earlier threats, the House voted to include in its version of the NDAA an amendment that aims to curtail a president’s powers under the Insurrection Act.

Among other changes, the House amendment would require the president and Defense secretary to make a certification to Congress that a state is unwilling or unable to suppress an insurrection in order to invoke the law. The certification would have to include “demonstrable” evidence that a state is unwilling or unable to act.

The Senate’s version of the bill includes a provision that would block Pentagon funding and personnel from being used against peaceful protesters.

But the Senate Armed Services Committee also rejected along party lines an amendment that would have curtailed Insurrection Act powers.

The Senate amendment went further than the amendment the House approved, but Republicans’ opposition to any Insurrection Act changes sets up a likely clash for the conference committee.

Nuclear weapons tests

The possibility of the United States conducting its first explosive nuclear test in decades became a flashpoint after reports that the Trump administration raised the possibility of doing a test as a negotiating tactic in arms talks.

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The administration is seeking a new arms control agreement with Russia and China to replace the expiring New START treaty between Washington and Moscow. Beijing has repeatedly rejected joining the talks.

The Senate’s version of the NDAA includes $10 million to “carry out projects related to reducing the time required to execute a nuclear test if necessary.”

The House’s version of the bill, though, would prohibit funding from being used “to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.”

Opponents of the House language argue it is too restrictive, preventing any tests that might be necessary in an emergency and thereby emboldening U.S. enemies.

But opponents of resuming nuclear testing argue doing so would trigger an arms race and be detrimental to human health and the environment while providing no practical benefit because the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is checked with other technology.

U.S. troops in Germany and Afghanistan

The House version of the NDAA includes provisions that would put up roadblocks to Trump’s plans to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Germany, as well as from Afghanistan.

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The bill would require several certifications be made before the Trump administration can proceed with plans to pull nearly 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany.

It would also require certifications before the United States can go below 8,000 troops in Afghanistan and then again before any drawdown below 4,000 troops. There are about 8,600 troops in Afghanistan now, with administration officials saying they plan to be at about 5,000 by Election Day.

The Senate’s version includes language warning against a “precipitous” withdrawal in Afghanistan, but does not have any provisions matching the House’s requirement for certifications before drawing down in Afghanistan or Germany.

There is bipartisan opposition to both drawdowns in both chambers of Congress. But Trump has gained a key supporter in the Senate for his Germany withdrawal that could make negotiations more difficult for that language, at least.

Inhofe said in July he thinks the Germany plan does “a good job of following the guiding principles I’ve described as the ‘three Fs’— forward presence, force projection and families.”

The border wall

The president’s wall along the U.S.-Mexico border has become a perennial fight for major legislation during the Trump era.

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Negotiations over last year’s NDAA dragged on in part over provisions in the initial House version that would have blocked Pentagon funding from being used for the wall and restricted the department’s ability to transfer funding between accounts after it moved around billions of dollars to use on the wall.

The language was jettisoned from the final version of the bill signed into law last year, and this year’s House version does not include similar provisions.

But there are still some wall-related provisions in the House bill that could trip up negotiations.

Specifically, the House NDAA would create caps on emergency use of military construction funding, setting them at $100 million for domestic projects and $500 million for overseas projects. Trump has used $3.6 billion in military construction funding for the wall since he declared a national emergency.

House Democrats argue the numbers in their bill are above what was needed even during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

But the Trump administration in its objections to the bill argued the limits would “greatly restrict” the military’s ability to respond to an emergency or war, saying in a July statement that “these arbitrary limits increase risks to the Armed Forces and the national security of the United States.”