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Breaking Down the House Defense Bill Vote

Smith is the ranking Democrat on Armed Services, but said he couldn't support the GOP's defense spending bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Smith is the ranking Democrat on Armed Services, but said he couldn't support the GOP's defense spending bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After clearing an amendment hurdle Thursday that looked like it could jeopardize passage, the House easily passed the National Defense Authorization Act Friday, 269-151.  

It was a strong vote, with 41 Democrats joining 228 Republicans to pass the annual defense authorization measure. But it was closer than it’s been in years, with 143 Democrats and eight Republicans saying “no” to a bill with issues both parochial and perennial. Of the eight Republicans to vote against the bill, there were no real surprises.  

Justin Amash of Michigan, Curt Clawson of Florida, John J. Duncan Jr. of Tennessee, Morgan Griffith of Virginia, Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, and Mark Sanford of South Carolina all voted against the fiscal 2016 NDAA.  

Six of those eight Republicans — Amash, Duncan, Griffith, Jones, Labrador and Massie — voted against the NDAA last year. Clawson wasn’t in Congress at the time. (He won a special election in 2014 to replace Republican Trey Radel, who resigned after being arrested for cocaine possession.)  

The only Republican to vote against the bill this year who voted for it last year was Sanford.  

The real change this year was on the Democratic side. As Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith pointed out, this was the first time in his 18-year congressional career that he’s ever voted against the NDAA. It’s probably the first time many Democrats have ever voted against the annual defense measure, which authorizes top-line spending figures for the Pentagon and outlines what the Defense Department can and can’t do.  

In an increasingly fractious Congress, the defense authorization measure had, in previous years, been one of the last major bills passed and signed into law in bipartisan fashion. And where once appropriators held all the power in Congress, Armed Services members — at least the ones who actually have sway over the committee — have become mighty lawmakers.  

But Democrats had a major problem with this year’s defense authorization.  

The GOP’s bill side-steps budget caps — budget caps that Democrats want removed — by adding $38 billion above the president’s request to the Overseas Contingency Operations fund. If Republicans are going to functionally not abide by the defense budget caps, Democrats contend the non-defense caps need to go as well.  

That issue led Democratic leaders to weigh in against the defense bill, with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urging caucus members in a Thursday night “Dear Colleague” letter to vote “no.”  

More than three-fourths of Democrats complied, but for many of the 41 Democrats who voted for the NDAA anyway — especially those hanging on to seats in vulnerable districts — the defense measure simply wasn’t up for negotiation.  

The Democrats who bucked leadership included: Pete Aguilar of California, Brad Ashford of Nebraska, Ami Bera and Julia Brownley of California, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, Jim Costa of California, John Delaney of Maryland, Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut, Bill Foster of Illinois, Gwen Graham of Florida, Derek Kilmer of Washington, Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire, Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, Dave Loebsack of Illinois, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, Patrick Murphy of Florida, Scott Peters of California, Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, Kathleen Rice of New York, Raul Ruiz of California, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.  

Then there were the Democrats on the Armed Services Committee, including Aguilar, Ashford, Graham, Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Joe Courtney of Connecticut, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Susan A. Davis of California, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, Rick Larsen of Washington, Donald Norcross of New Jersey, Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Mark Takai of Hawaii.  

The five remaining Democrats who voted “aye” are neither on the Armed Services Committee, nor are particularly vulnerable, but all have reasons to support the bill.  

William Lacy Clay has a Boeing plant where they make the F/A-18 near his Missouri district. Fort Lewis is in Denny Heck’s Washington district. John B. Larson’s home state of Connecticut has many shipbuilding interests. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland is on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and has Fort Meade in his district. And Tim Walz of Minnesota is the highest ranking enlisted soldier to ever serve in Congress.  

The truth is it’s rare for a member to have no stake in the defense authorization measure. Most lawmakers have some tie to the bill in some way, and voting for the bill often means supporting local jobs, hence why so many vulnerable Democrats weren’t willing to open themselves up to that particular attack ad.  

What was surprising about this NDAA vote was not the Republicans who voted against it, or the Democrats who voted for it. It was the Democrats who voted against it. Obviously, those lawmakers have an argument against the bill. It preserved unrealistic spending caps, they’ll say. It used budgeting gimmicks. It contained some of the most restrictive Guantanamo Bay provisions ever included in a defense authorization bill.  

But no matter the argument, it could open plenty of lawmakers up to the well-worn attack of not supporting the military, or of not supporting local jobs, or of being weak on defense. And that makes this year’s NDAA vote one for the books.  

See the full vote breakdown here .  


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