The House soldiered on through hundreds of amendments to the annual defense policy bill Thursday, but major issues — including authorization to use force and military involvement on the southern border — remain unresolved, as does the ultimate fate of the bill.
Lawmakers plan to vote on some of the most controversial amendments, as well as final passage of the measure Friday morning. Republicans and progressives alike voiced deep reservations this week about the typically bipartisan measure, and it is unclear that the last two days of debate assuaged their concerns.
The Friday votes include an amendment from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., that would repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq that has been used ever since to sanction U.S. military activity across the Middle East.
“Leaving it in effect risks abuse by this and any other future administration,” Lee said.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said that panel was the proper venue for discussing possible changes to the country’s ability to wage war.
“Although none of us want to see the extension of any conflict beyond what is necessary, we have also learned that premature disengagement can have huge costs,” he said, “such as when the prior administration’s rush to withdraw U.S. troops contributed to the deadly rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”
There was also spirited discussion late Thursday on an amendment offered by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, that would require prior congressional authorization before the Trump administration could enter into a conflict with Iran. A final vote on the amendment will come on Friday.
“When the amendment passes, it will be a statement that this country is tired of endless wars, that we do not want another war in the Middle East,” Khanna said.
McCaul maintained that the amendment goes too far in tying the hands of the president.
“The administration’s measured response to Iran’s shoot down of our U.S. military asset in international airspace shows the president is not looking for a war with Iran,” McCaul said, referring to a June 20 incident where a U.S. Global Hawk surveillance drone was shot down in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran claimed the drone had violated Iranian airspace, which the U.S. disputed.
Remaining amendments from Reps. Sylvia R. Garcia, D-Texas, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, would bar the military from housing migrant children and prohibit the president from deploying troops to the border to enforce immigration laws and from using Defense Department funds to detain undocumented immigrants at military installations.
“Kids are not prisoners of war. They do not belong on military bases, they do not belong in tents, they do not belong in cages. They belong in the arms of their mothers and with their families,” said Garcia. “It is our broken immigration system that keeps children locked up, and it is inhumane, it is cruel, and it is unconscionable.”
These issues are likely to be divisive, and require roll call votes to be resolved, but their inclusion in the debate is designed to shore up progressive support for the bill. Because Republicans have indicated they will likely oppose it, Democrats can only afford to lose a handful of votes from the liberal wing of the caucus if they are going to pass the bill.
Thornberry, who spent the previous four years as the committee’s chairman, complained that Democrats, now in the majority, were keeping Republicans from having a significant say in shaping the legislation despite the more than 400 amendments allowed for floor consideration. The preponderance of amendments, Thornberry said, came from Democrats.
Smith countered that Republicans had curtailed their participation because they had already made up their minds to oppose the bill’s passage for political reasons.
“When you are in the minority, you want the majority to fail,” Smith said. “The defense committee has traditionally been different than that.”
Much of the debates and votes that took place Thursday centered on issues likely to attract progressive support.
The chamber approved an amendment, sponsored by House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Speier of California, that would allow transgender individuals to join the armed forces by a vote of 242-187, largely along party lines. Ten Republicans joined 232 Democrats in supporting the measure.
The House also adopted two amendments Thursday aimed directly at two of Trump’s pet causes.
California Democrat Ted Lieu offered one that would block the Defense Department from spending money at Trump properties unless the president reimburses the government. That amendment was adopted, 221-205.
A second, offered by Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, would bar the president from holding military parades and exhibitions for political purposes. It was adopted in a 221-207 vote.
Several of the amendments to the bill approved earlier Thursday would limit the administration’s ability to transfer arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates without approval from Congress.
The amendments could make conference negotiations with the GOP-led Senate more difficult. Nonetheless, the progressive vote could make or break the House bill.
Republicans’ main objections include the $733 billion topline, which is $17 billion less than the administration requested. Republicans are also upset about Democrats’ proposal to block the deployment of new submarine-launched lower-yield nuclear missiles, which the administration says it needs to counter the threat of a tactical strike by Russia.