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Democrats ‘got completely rolled’ in NDAA talks, critics say

Litany of progressive provisions fails to make conference committee report

Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan is calling for a national conversation on repeated increases to defense spending. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan is calling for a national conversation on repeated increases to defense spending. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The final defense authorization measure for the current fiscal year represents a victory for Republicans.

That’s the word from a large number of angry Democrats in Congress, their supporters and, more discreetly, from many Republicans.

Despite the widespread Democratic opposition to the $735 billion NDAA produced by House and Senate conferees, Congress is expected to send the fiscal 2020 legislation to the White House as soon as this week.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the measure. Republicans are generally pleased with the outcome after having fiercely resisted the earlier version  written in the Democrat-controlled House. In fact, in a stunning reversal of the norm, not a single House Republican voted for the massive Pentagon policy measure on the floor in July.

With the specter of a possible Trump veto looming over the conference on the House and Senate bills, and with congressional Republicans standing united, the conference committee laid waste to a long list of progressive provisions that were either in the House bill or that Democrats had wanted added to the final product.

These included everything from tougher regulations on toxic chemicals in drinking water on military bases to anti-discrimination protections for transgender troops to restrictions on Trump’s attempts to use military money to build barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border, and much more.

A coalition of 31 liberal organizations representing disarmament, human rights and other causes said in a statement Tuesday that the NDAA outcome is “a near complete capitulation” in checking the Trump administration’s military policies.

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‘Moral cowardice’

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the floor Tuesday that “lots of things are missing” in the final NDAA. The New York Democrat noted just “one very good thing:” establishment of a 12-week parental leave benefit for federal employees.

Some progressive lawmakers, like Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, were more outspokenly irate and quickly indicated their intention to vote against the bill.

In a statement, Pocan called for a national conversation on repeated increases to defense spending, noting that Congress had boosted the Pentagon’s budget by $131 billion during Trump’s first term.

“At the same time that this administration has cut food stamps, Medicaid and reproductive health services from everyday Americans, this president wants to add more than a hundred billion dollars to continue endless and unauthorized wars, ban transgender troops, keep Guantanamo Bay open, allow the unchecked contamination of water supplies with polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and establish a Space Force,” he said. 

California Democrat Ro Khanna, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a vice-chair of the same progressive caucus, also signaled his opposition to the bill. Khanna had sponsored amendments that would have blocked some U.S. spending on the Yemen conflict and required congressional consent before entering into a conflict with Iran.

Khanna issued a joint statement with Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, calling the final agreement “a bill of astonishing moral cowardice.”

Likewise, Joe Cirincione, a former House Armed Services staffer who is now president of the nonproliferation organization Ploughshares Fund, said in a tweet Monday that the House Democrats “got completely rolled.”

House Democratic leadership has “a lot of explaining to do on why they caved on every single national security policy,” he said. “Looks weak.”

Yet Adam Smith, the Washington Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee and who led the House conferees, has seemed resigned to losing so many battles in conference and recently suggested it was the product of political reality.

“I’ve been told consistently over the course of the last two or three months that I just have to negotiate harder,” Smith said at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday. “I was like, ‘Can I do that? How does that work exactly? Can you spell that out to me? Do I, like, hold my breath? Do I, like, physically attack?’ They are where they are, OK? And you know, you have to respect that.”

GOP’s measured glee

On the other side of the aisle, meanwhile, there was barely contained joy.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stopped just short of gloating on the Senate floor Monday. He said the final NDAA “is not either side’s ideal bill.” But he noted that House Democrats’ “partisan demands” were now gone, and he said “sanity and progress” had begun to prevail on NDAA and other issues.

“Reassuringly,” he said in floor remarks Tuesday, “ the past few days have finally brought an end to bipartisan talks and produced a compromise NDAA.”

Similarly, Rep. Rob Wittman, a senior House Armed Services member, was ebullient about the NDAA outcome in a statement Monday night.

“A bill that started with unreasonable, partisan riders is now a piece of legislation that I believe does right by our men and women in uniform and provides sound, strong defense policy for the next year,” the Virginia Republican said.

A litany of loss

The ditched Democratic provisions, most of which were in the House-passed bill, included restrictions on using Pentagon funds for building barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border and restraints on the president’s ability to reprogram money.

Smith suggested the border debate should be decided next year at the ballot box.

“Let’s go have the argument in front of the American people instead of jeopardizing the defense bill, putting us on the brink of another government shutdown, upsetting all of the Pentagon’s responsibilities,” he said.

Conferees also tossed out a House-passed ban on deployment of a less powerful but still massively destructive version of a submarine-launched nuclear warhead. Democrats had said the weapon increases the chances of nuclear war, while Republicans had made the opposite argument.

Kingston Reif, a defense expert with the Arms Control Association, called the NDAA’s nuclear-arms decisions “extremely disappointing” and blamed the outcome on a lack of unity among Senate Democrats to bolster their House colleagues.

“In blessing the deployment of a new, low-yield warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles, Congress is giving President Trump before the end of his first term a more usable nuclear weapon that is a dangerous solution in search of a problem,” he said.

Also gone from the final bill is a House-passed requirement that Congress authorize any war on Iran and a ban on U.S. military aid for offensive strikes by the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen.

The conference report merely blocks U.S. tankers from providing aerial refueling of Saudi planes that are launching strikes on Yemen, codifying something the Pentagon had already done.

“Way to send a message,” tweeted Andrea Prasow, the acting Washington director for Human Rights Watch.

Also excluded is a mandate that the EPA regulate PFAS on military bases as a hazardous substance, which would have triggered cleanup efforts under the Superfund law.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said in statements Monday that they were disappointed the conferees dropped that provision.

Meanwhile, the bill does not, as Democrats hoped it would, reverse Trump’s ban on transgender people joining the military.

A coalition of LGBTQ organizations issued a statement blaming Republicans for the outcome and thanking Democrats.

“Military leadership, medical experts, and defense budget experts have all provided evidence that the ban is without merit, costs the taxpayer, and is damaging to military readiness,” said the coalition, which includes the Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Transgender Equality, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, Modern Military Association of America, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal, American Civil Liberties Union, and the Palm Center.

The conferees also jettisoned a House-passed prohibition on sending new detainees for indefinite detention or military tribunal at the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba. And they did not include legislation that required sanctions for foreigners who are shown to have interfered in U.S. elections.

Some wins on both sides

The president and his fellow Republicans carried the day not just in what they kept out of the bill but also in what they put into it.

One GOP victory was the authorization for the highest defense budget since World War II, adjusted for inflation, save for when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were at their peak. That outcome was secured in August when the two parties agreed to raise spending on military and non-military spending by equal amounts above the caps then in law.

Trump and his allies also obtained creation of a so-called Space Force inside the Air Force, though many Democrats back the idea as well, if not all the details on implementing it.

Despite the Democrats’ many defeats, they at least won a few prizes of note in the new NDAA.

These include the proposal to provide federal workers with 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn.

Republicans normally resist extensions of benefits for federal workers, and the Trump administration has been no exception. But this change got a boost from within the first family, as Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser, championed the move.

Democrats also won a victory when conferees decided to overturn the “widow’s tax.” That is the longstanding statutory requirement that survivors of deceased U.S. military personnel — some 65,000 people whose spouses either were killed in action or who died of service-related causes in retirement — must see their Defense Department death benefits reduced by however much they are receiving from a similar account in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Another Democratic triumph came when the conferees established an administrative process for military personnel to be compensated for medical malpractice in military facilities, though conferees stopped short of allowing plaintiffs to sue the Pentagon over such claims.