House approves NDAA with no Republican votes

Progressive amendments helped Dems earn votes from the party’s more dovish members in the face of Republican opposition

Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., talks with ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, right, before a House Armed Services Committee markup in Rayburn Building on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House on Friday approved its defense authorization bill after adopting a slew of progressive amendments that helped Democrats earn votes from the party’s more dovish members in the face of Republican opposition.

The final vote on the fiscal 2020 bill was 220-197. No Republicans supported the typically bipartisan measure that traditionally has earned more than 300 of the 435 available House votes.

[Flatware gets its day in NDAA]

Just before passing the bill, the House defeated, 204-212, a Republican motion to recommit that would have increased the military pay raise and poured additional funds into military maintenance accounts.

Republicans opposed the underlying bill before it reached the floor because it includes a prohibition on deploying lower-yield nuclear weapons, a ban on sending new prisoners to the Guantanamo Bay detention center and restrictions on how the Pentagon can transfer funds between its accounts. They also said its $733 billion in authorized spending, a full $17 billion less than Republicans desired, wasn't enough.

Before the final vote, both sides peppered the Capitol with partisan quips.

[NDAA future uncertain amid amendment disputes]

“This bill is filled with poison pills,” Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said on the floor, citing the legislation’s authorized spending level, Guantanamo provisions and measures that would limit the Defense Department’s activities on the U.S.-Mexico border. “This bill will not make America safe.”

While McCarthy spoke, the House Armed Services Committee’s Democrats retorted on Twitter, saying, “Thank you for your concern, @GOPLeader, but we would encourage you to read the #FY20NDAA more closely before making such sweeping, false accusations.”

Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat, on the floor responded to McCarthy’s polemic, during which he lambasted Democrats for partisanship.

“What the minority leader said is the biggest insult I have ever heard to the members of this staff in 23 years on this committee. To dismiss them as partisans not interested in national security is an incredible insult to the hard work that they do," Smith said. “Nobody in this House, Republican or Democrat, should let a statement like that stand.”

Before voting against the bill, Republicans held a press conference in which they spoke at a podium with a placard that read, “Democrats put politics before our troops.”

At the press conference, Michael R. Turner of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said the bill, by restricting the deployment of submarine-launched lower-yield nuclear weapons, “emboldens” U.S. adversaries.

The House later voted down Turner’s amendment to reverse that ban, 201-221.

GOP Conference chairwoman and House Armed Services member Liz Cheney of Wyoming called the bill “shameful.”

Republicans’ reasons for opposing the bill are exactly why typically reluctant Democrats this year supported it. Last year, for example, 59 Democrats voted against the annual policy bill, which sets rules and authorizes spending levels for the Pentagon. Two years ago, 73 Democrats opposed the bill. This year, just eight Democrats voted against the bill.

Progressives had ample reasons to support the bill.

The House on Friday adopted a handful of progressive-sponsored amendments. One, from Armed Services Committee member and vice chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Ro Khanna of California, would block President Donald Trump from launching an unauthorized war with Iran.

That amendment passed 251-170 shortly after Trump warned Iran over breaching uranium enrichment levels outlined in a pact with world powers. The United States withdrew from the deal.

“Iran better be careful,” Trump said on the White House’s South Lawn. “They're treading on very dangerous territory. Iran if you’re listening, you better be careful.”

Meanwhile, California Democrat Barbara Lee's amendment to repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq that has been used to sanction U.S. military activity across the Middle East, was adopted 242-180.

The House also passed 213-204 a measure from Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, another member of the Progressive Caucus, that bans Defense Department facilities from housing any foreign national detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Earlier this week, the chamber approved amendments that would:

  • allow transgender people to join the armed forces;
  • block the Defense Department from spending money at Trump properties unless the president reimburses the government;
  • limit the administration’s ability to transfer arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates without approval from Congress;
  • ban support for and participation in the Saudi-led coalition’s military actions in Yemen, and prohibit the president from holding military parades for political purposes.

But not all progressive amendments were adopted.

A proposal from Barbara Lee that would have reduced the bill’s topline by $16.8 billion was voted down 115-307.

Additionally, the House rejected measures from Reps. Sylvia R. Garcia, D-Texas, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., that would have banned the military from housing migrant children, prohibited the president from deploying troops to the border to enforce immigration laws and from using Pentagon funds to detain undocumented immigrants at military installations.

The bill now heads to conference committee with the Senate, which passed its companion bill last month. And it is sure to face opposition going forward.

Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, one of the Senate’s most conservative members who has repeatedly called for $750 billion in authorized spending, is expected to oppose the House’s border and Guantanamo provisions.

John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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