Congress

Freshman national security Democrats seize political moment

From left, Reps. Abigail Spanberger, Mikie Sherrill, Chrissy Houlahan, Elissa Slotkin and Xochitl Torres Small conduct a meeting in the Capitol in September. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In the hours after the targeted killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and with concern rapidly mounting about the potential for a direct military confrontation with Iran, several high-profile House liberals announced plans to constrain President Donald Trump’s ability to wage war.

But it was a lesser-known and more moderate freshman — Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a former CIA analyst who did three tours in Iraq focusing on the country’s Iranian-backed Shiite militias — whom Speaker Nancy Pelosi ultimately tapped as the face of Democrats’ arguments for putting guardrails on Trump’s Iran strategy.

The choice of Slotkin demonstrates the growing influence of a handful of freshman Democrats with experience in the military, Pentagon, State Department, CIA, National Security Council and the like. As House Democrats grow more emboldened in checking Trump — from war with Iran, to impeachment over the withholding of critical security assistance to Ukraine — they are increasingly relying on these freshmen to make their case.

They bring a credibility to national security issues that can be hard to challenge. They’ve carried rifles in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan; they’ve been on the bridge of ships of war underway at sea; they’ve been in the Situation Room during international crises.

This cohort first attracted serious national attention when seven members penned an op-ed in The Washington Post in September, arguing that withholding security funding from Ukraine while pressuring its president to launch an investigation into a political rival was an impeachable offense. Since then, their clout has only grown, even in an institution that prioritizes tenure and paying one’s dues.

They have effectively seized on the current political moment, where national security seems to touch every aspect of Trump’s agenda. Want to improve the economy? Enter a trade war with China, which the Pentagon identified as America’s top military competitor. Want to alter the flow of immigrants into the country? Build a wall, using money from the Defense Department’s budget.

But the op-ed, signed by Slotkin, Gil Cisneros of California, Jason Crow of Colorado, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Elaine Luria of Virginia, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, stands out as a watershed moment of Trump’s first term.

“We thought that a joint effort would send a very strong message, that this was something that went to the core of our national security and defense backgrounds, something that we all share and that has been the basis for our relationship and our time in Congress so far,” said Crow, a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The op-ed’s outsize influence — the day after it ran, Pelosi launched the House’s impeachment inquiry — came as a surprise to the authors, Crow said. “I don’t think any of us thought that it would have a large impact,” he said.

Quickly gaining influence

Some of these freshmen met while campaigning, while others had worked together in security roles for years. Once elected, they quickly bonded over their shared experiences and started meeting for potlucks, drinks and the occasional morning jog. They began to communicate via a group text chain.

They have all assumed roles on key national security committees and their sharply focused questions, even coming at the end of long hearings because of their freshman status, have drawn notice for their policy specificity and general incisiveness.

Yet it was another group of first-term Democrats — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, known collectively as the “squad” — that drew national headlines, an enormous social media following and verbal attacks from Trump and his base.

As the squad and other liberals pressed Pelosi to open impeachment proceedings over the special counsel report into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the speaker demurred. And for their part, the national security freshmen were also skeptical.

“A lot of us had concluded that we had not moved forward in a way after the Mueller report that was compelling enough to bring to our district,” said Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot.

But that all changed with Ukraine.

“Immediately, a bright line had been crossed,” said Sherrill, who once worked in the Pentagon as a Russia nuclear policy officer.

Given that most of the authors had won by modest margins in red districts, their willingness to put their fledgling political careers at risk gave the op-ed even greater significance.

“If you can say one thing about our group, it’s that we are comfortable putting our skin in the game on any issue. We started doing that at a very young age when we raised our right hands and swore an oath to protect the country,” Crow said. “That’s not going to change now that we are members of Congress.” 

Beyond those who signed the op-ed, freshmen with national security experience include Afghanistan veteran Max Rose of New York, former State Department assistant secretary Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Andy Kim of New Jersey, whose résumé includes stints at Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon and the National Security Council.

These Democrats have pushed for a more thoughtful strategy for responding to Tehran after last fall’s Iranian attacks on major Saudi oil facilities. They have also criticized Trump’s “misguided and catastrophic” decision to order the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria, exposing Kurdish allies there to attacks by the Turkish army.

The Syria statement was written by Spanberger and Crow after a trip to Turkey, Afghanistan and the Syria-Jordan border with Houlahan, Kim and New York Republican Elise Stefanik.

“Literally, we sat in the airport and wrote that piece,” Spanberger said, adding that she and Crow were “texting back and forth with Houlahan” who had left the airport earlier, while looping in Stefanik to the statement edits.

Kim said he looks for common ground and consciously tries to avoid bomb-throwing in policymaking.

“I don’t want people in the Situation Room making decisions about war and sending our armed services men and women into harm’s way thinking about what’s going to be good for an election or what’s going to be good in party politics,” said Kim, who co-chairs the House Democratic Caucus National Security Task Force along with Crow and Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico.

During a recent briefing on questions surrounding the administration’s decision to kill Soleimani, Crow said he had firsthand knowledge of the general’s bloody history.

“I know what it’s like to load wounded American soldiers into the back of trucks in Baghdad in the summer of 2003 that were wounded during IED attacks,” many that were orchestrated or resulted from training provided by Soleimani, Crow said. “But I also know that a shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach rarely turns out well.”

And their hands-on experience has, for the most part, been eagerly seized upon by their House colleagues, many of whom have spent their legislative careers focusing on Democrats’ traditional strengths in domestic policy areas like health care and the environment.

“When coming up in the military and being a Democrat, you kind of always feel a little bit like an outsider in the national security space,” said Houlahan, a former Air Force officer.

But with Trump’s 2016 election and his radical departure from U.S. foreign policy norms on issues such as human rights, alliances and opposing authoritarianism, Houlahan, Slotkin, Spanberger and other national security veterans felt a call to a new kind of public service.

“It’s important that people understand that national security voices come from all different parts of the political spectrum,” Houlahan said. “None of us owns patriotism, owns the flag.”

Front and center

All of this no doubt informed Pelosi’s decision to choose Slotkin to offer the war powers resolution ordering an end to unauthorized hostilities with Iran. The House debated and adopted the resolution on Thursday.

“For me, this is not a theoretical exercise,” said Slotkin, whose son-in-law’s military unit was stationed at Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq when it came under Iranian ballistic missile attack this week. “I have followed Iran’s destabilizing activity in Iraq up close for my entire professional career. I have watched friends and colleagues hurt or killed by Iranian rockets, mortars and explosive devices.”

Having Slotkin lead the effort sent “a powerful message that this is something that is based on national security priorities,” said Spanberger, a former undercover CIA officer. “There is no room to make this a partisan thing with Elissa. Her motivation is to protect U.S. forces, her motivation is to protect the U.S. homeland because that’s what she’s always been doing.”

But even as they amass influence, this group of Democrats isn’t always in lockstep, even on matters of war.

Rose, for one, opposed the Slotkin measure, arguing that it was merely a nonbinding political statement that “sends the message that war is imminent.” Luria also voted against it, saying she would prefer to debate an actual authorization for use of military force.

Still, Rose joined with Crow, Slotkin and over 30 other House Democrats on a letter to Trump demanding more information on the Iran strategy.

“As you send our nation’s sons and daughters far from home to secure our embassies and interests in the region, it is only right that you provide the American people with a detailed explanation of your strategy and goals,” they wrote.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.