Back from a five-week-long recess, the House and Senate are gearing up for several major battles over defense policy, with the Trump administration’s use of Pentagon money for a Mexico border wall only making it harder to reconcile the differences in rival versions of the massive, must-pass 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
The House and Senate versions contain major differences on the total amount of spending, as well as on numerous policy provisions for the Department of Defense touching on Russia, Iran, nuclear weapons and President Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military.
Lawmakers and analysts alike have hammered the importance of passing the defense budget on time — by the beginning of October.
“Certainly getting budgets done on time is hugely important,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and the director of research at the Brookings Institution.
At the beginning of summer, the House and Senate passed competing versions of the defense spending bill, with a $17 billion difference.
Several top members of the Republican-led Senate at the time expressed some willingness to decrease the budget in order to get the bill passed on time. However, the Democrat-held House was hesitant to pass its proposed $733 billion budget because some liberal members insisted that the 2.3% funding increase from the previous fiscal year was too high.
Despite their differences, both sides of the Capitol have approved a massive $2.7 trillion two-year budget deal that sets a $738 billion defense budget for next year, $12 billion below the Senate’s proposed increase.
Members of the House are expected to fight for language that would restrict the use of defense funds for military force against Iran.
In a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees as Congress departed for recess last month, a bipartisan group of 28 lawmakers argued that “the risk of the U.S. entering into war with Iran without authorization remains acute … [and] the final conference report for the FY 2020 NDAA must include the bipartisan amendment to prohibit an unauthorized and unconstitutional war with Iran.”
But many Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have staunchly opposed the amendment to the defense policy bill because it restricts the president’s war authority.
Despite momentum to bring down the hammer on several U.S. competitors, including China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Congress should be looking at the bigger picture, analysts say.
“How to mitigate and control great-power rivalry without risking war — to me, that’s issue No. 1 where Congress can and should do more,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.
Tackling other issues
The National Defense Authorization Act will be the priority, but both chambers say other defense issues are looming as Congress reassembles, including clashes over policy toward key adversaries such as Russia.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch, Idaho Republican, said in an interview as he departed Capitol Hill for the annual summer break that “[Russia‘s] list of sins is as long as your arm, and I think that people are just fed up with it.”
“There’s a lot of interest on the committee” to “take some action” against Russia for human rights and military violations that have been committed on their behalf, he said.
Analysts welcomed the renewed push on Capitol Hill to call out Moscow’s violations regardless of an improved relationship between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The continued use of sanctions against offending entities and individuals will likely continue,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.
“Congress could, however, also hold hearings on the long-term relationship with Russia and what, if anything, can be done about it,” he said.
The relationship hit a snag last week when Moscow reportedly denied visas to several members of the Senate committee who planned a visit to Moscow to meet with government officials and various business leaders.
Congress has taken a bigger role in foreign policy matters because lawmakers have questioned Mr. Trump’s sometimes disruptive approach.
Just days before the August recess, the Senate Armed Services Committee renewed efforts to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia for what critics say are a continuing string of human rights violations. Mr. Trump vetoed a similar bill earlier this year, and Mr. Risch insists the latest bill will not get past the president’s desk.
Sens. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, are pushing legislation that would impose some of the harshest sanctions on Russia for its involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and aggression against Ukraine. A similar bill failed to pass last year.
The Mexico border — and the Trump administration’s use of troops and Defense Department dollars to beef up security there — continue to roil lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Democrats slammed Mr. Trump’s Tuesday announcement that he intends to use emergency powers to transfer $3.6 billion from the military’s facilities budget and put it toward building more of his border wall.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that the move shows Mr. Trump “is willing to take funds from our troops and disaster victims and divert them to try to protect his political right flank. And ultimately, that could put Americans at risk.”
“This isn’t just an attempt to shift funding, it’s a bid to shift power away from Congress to the president,” Mr. Reed said.
Mr. Risch said he intends to focus on policy issues he knows the president will approve but his goal is to make as much of a tangible impact on improving the global standing of the U.S.
“There’s 200 countries, there’s all kinds of things out there that need to be done,” the chairman said, “so we’ll be looking for somewhere where we can actually make some progress.”
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