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Brennan Fracas Could Rip Through Senate’s Defense Spending Debate

Security clearances, abortion among amendment topics floated

Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner, here with Chairman Richard Burr, says he plans to introduce an amendment to the 2019 defense spending bill that would block the president from revoking security clearances. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner, here with Chairman Richard Burr, says he plans to introduce an amendment to the 2019 defense spending bill that would block the president from revoking security clearances. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate is ready to start voting on amendments to the fiscal 2019 Defense spending bill, possibly including several that could stir spirited debate.

Senators have only agreed so far to vote on two relatively uncontroversial amendments to the the two-bill package that includes both the $675 billion Defense bill and the $179.3 billion Labor-HHS-Education measure. Those first two votes are scheduled for Monday evening.

On the horizon, though, are potential fights over President Donald Trump’s termination of others’ security clearances, U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, procurement of warships that were not part of Trump’s massive Pentagon budget request, questions about winners and losers in the creation of a new Army command and, not least, federal funding for abortions.

Amendments along those lines have been filed, but Senate leaders have yet to announce which amendments will get votes.

“This process is not easy,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in floor remarks Aug. 16. “On the floor, we need cooperation from both sides to process amendments, while resisting the temptation to turn the appropriations process into a free-for-all on all manner of policy issues. But this year, that is exactly what we are doing.”

War in Yemen

The Senate has voted several times in the past two years on whether to halt or curtail U.S. military aid to the Saudi-led war on Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Senate has yet to agree to stop the aid. But with each vote, support has grown for severing the American connection to the four-year-old war.

Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy is pushing for another such vote: on whether to halt all U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition unless the Defense secretary can certify that U.S. law and policies on protecting civilians are being followed. The United States has sold bombs to the coalition, shared intelligence with it, and provided midair refueling services.

The war has taken more than 10,000 civilian lives and left millions hungry, sick or in need of other assistance, Murphy said in a statement. Civilian casualties from U.S.-backed airstrikes rose from 567 last year to 778 already in 2018, he said, citing United Nations statistics.

A particularly shocking attack occurred Aug. 9, when a Saudi coalition airstrike hit a school bus, killing 54 people, including 44 children, and wounding many more.

The defense authorization law that Trump enacted earlier this month would bar U.S. tankers from refueling planes fighting in Yemen unless the Pentagon reports on, among other things, how the Saudis are limiting harm to civilians.

Trump issued a signing statement a week ago saying he reserves the right to disregard this provision if he does not think it is feasible or if he thinks it conflicts with his duties as commander in chief.

Murphy said in an Aug. 17 statement that adoption of his amendment to the Defense spending bill would send a signal that Congress “wasn’t messing around” in the defense authorization law.

Several other Democrats have pressed the administration for answers this month on its Yemen policy. These include House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Reps. Adam Smith of Washington and Ted Lieu of California, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“For three years, administrations of both parties have promised that U.S. assistance will improve the targeting, but things on the ground are getting worse, not better,” Murphy said in his statement.

Littoral combat ships

Another possible floor debate concerns the U.S. Navy.

Senior White House officials, in a statement of administration policy issued last week, said they “strongly object” to the bill’s proposed addition of $475 million for a second Littoral Combat Ship, in addition to the one the president requested. “The additional ship is not needed,” the White House said.

The LCS is a shore-hugging class of vessels that can be modified based on mission. They have faced technical and cost challenges, and the Pentagon has reduced the total number to be purchased.

Despite the administration’s objection to buying two LCS warships in fiscal 2019, the Senate may consider an amendment to buy one more, which would bring the total to three.

Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin has filed an amendment to spend $437 million on a third LCS. Some of the ships are made in her state, and the rest are made in Alabama.

Baldwin said in a statement that the program’s trends are improving in terms of technical performance and cost.

“I believe that the LCS program is the perfect opportunity for President Trump to put his ‘Buy American, Hire American’ policy into practice,” Baldwin said.

Army Futures Command

The Army, too, could find itself at the center of a Senate debate.

The service announced last month that Austin, Texas, will be the home of Army Futures Command, a new organization intended to oversee the service’s modernization of equipment and modes of operation.

The Army plans to cut funding on science and technology programs to fund the new organization, and that has caused heartburn among those who stand to lose from the shifts.

Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, for example, could be among the Army installations that might lose jobs as a result of the changes, experts say.

Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin has filed a pair of amendments to push back. One would simply halt spending on creating the new command. The other proposal would make the spending contingent on completion of Government Accountability Office studies of the changes.

Cardin wants to be sure that such a major change is done carefully, he said in a statement.

“The Army should want to make sure that any undertaking this big and this vital is done in a thoughtful and deliberate way rather than being hastily cobbled together,” he said.

Abortion and more

Another hot-button amendment, by Utah Republican Mike Lee, would bar use of any of the bill’s funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or where the mother’s life is in danger if the abortion is not performed.

The first votes on amendments, set for 5:30 p.m. Monday, will come on two proposals that are far less controversial. One, by Democrat Robert Menendez, would take $1 million from existing management funds at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and use it to implement a law setting up a firefighters cancer registry. The second amendment, by Republican Deb Fischer, would move $10 million from Pentagon operations and maintenance accounts to a program for identifying prisoners of war and those missing in action.

The White House has taken issue with other aspects of the Senate’s Defense spending bill. These include a $532 million proposed cut for Afghan security forces and a $406 million proposed cut to a fund used to train and equip allied forces in Iraq and Syria to fight Islamic State terrorists.

Lastly, Trump’s termination of former CIA Director John O. Brennan’s security clearance has ignited a firestorm.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said Friday on Twitter that he is drafting an amendment that would “block the President from punishing and intimidating his critics by arbitrarily revoking security clearances.”

An aide to Warner confirmed that the intended vehicle is the appropriations bill.

If Senate leaders were to allow the amendment a vote, it would create a politically charged moment less than three months ahead of the midterm elections.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

Watch: Trump Stands By Security Clearance Decision

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