Republicans signal opposition to defense bill as floor debate kicks off

Amendments approved Wednesday included one to prohibit Pentagon from naming new DoD assets after confederate leaders or Civil War victories

“There is virtually no opportunity to improve the bill,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, ranking member on the Armed Services Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
“There is virtually no opportunity to improve the bill,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, ranking member on the Armed Services Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 11, 2019 at 11:18am

The House will continue its debate Thursday on the more than 300 remaining amendments offered to a wide-ranging defense policy bill, after adopting more than 100 noncontroversial amendments Wednesday.

Powerful Republicans signaled their displeasure with the typically bipartisan defense authorization bill, and with the amendments Democrats allowed for floor debate.

“There is virtually no opportunity to improve the bill,” Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday evening, noting that almost none of the 439 amendments lined up for floor debate address Republican concerns with the bill.

The bill would authorize $733 billion in defense spending, which is $17 billion less than what House Republicans say the Pentagon needs to compete with Russia and China.

The lower-than-desired topline, along with provisions that would restrict the Pentagon’s ability to deploy lower-yield nuclear weapons and prohibit sending new prisoners to the Guantánamo Bay detention center, is driving Republicans’ sustained opposition.

“While I support portions of this bill, and I supported this bill in committee, I am deeply concerned that it is moving in the wrong direction,” said Republican Elise Stefanik of New York, a member of the Armed Services Committee. “I am very concerned about where our colleagues in the majority are taking this bill.”

Virginia’s Rob Wittman, the top Republican on the Seapower Subcommittee, was more explicit.

“Unfortunately, in its current form, I rise in opposition to HR 2500,” Wittman said, after highlighting that he has supported every other defense authorization bill since he first came to Congress 11 years ago. “I would encourage my colleagues to oppose final passage.”

With so many Republicans signaling opposition to the bill, Thursday’s amendment debate could be crucial to earning support from progressive Democrats, who typically oppose defense authorization bills for authorizing high spending levels and allowing ceaseless wars.

Democratic leadership has worked to earn progressive support by allowing amendments to reduce the total amount of defense spending, to provide paid family leave for federal workers, and to restrict President Donald Trump on everything from Saudi arms sales to military parades.

Amendments debate

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith of Washington kicked off debate with an amendment that would impose stricter reporting requirements from the director of national intelligence of civilian casualties in battle zones where U.S. forces are present. That amendment, like all other amendments not adopted by voice vote on Wednesday, will receive a roll call vote Thursday or Friday.

One of the most controversial amendments debated Wednesday came from California Democrat Jackie Speier, who offered a measure that would require that “gender-neutral occupational standards” alone should drive military recruiting, which would appear to undercut Trump’s attempt to restrict recruitment of transgender people into the military.

Trump’s transgender ban applies to new recruits, not current servicemembers.

Virginia Democrat Gerald E. Connolly took on the Trump administration with a simple amendment that would prevent the closure of the Office of Personnel Management, which manages the government’s civilian workforce. Trump is considering shuttering the office and splitting up its responsibilities among existing executive agencies.

Doing so, Connolly said, would be a “disaster.”

But defenders of the policy say Trump’s plan will streamline sluggish government bureaucracy.

“This is not an elimination of OPM, it is a merger,” Georgia Republican Jody B. Hice said, noting that the administration’s plan would merge OPM with the Government Services Administration.

The amendment will get a roll call vote this week.

With so many amendments on deck, the House is depending on more than a dozen bundled packages of amendments to cut back on debate and push through largely noncontroversial measures.

Those approved Wednesday include one from New York Democrat Gregory W. Meeks that would prohibit the Defense secretary from naming any new Defense Department asset after “a person who served or held a leadership position in the Confederacy, a city or battlefield made significant by a Confederate victory.”

At least 10 military bases — including Forts Benning, Bragg and Hood — are named after Confederate soldiers, but the provision would not be applied retroactively.

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