Congress

Border wall, nuclear weapons to spark partisan fight at defense bill debate

House Armed Services to being marathon annual markup on Wednesday

A protester shows support for the border wall at a September 2018 rally at the Capitol. The wall is expected to be a flashpoint at the annual Pentagon policy bill debate Wednesday at the House Armed Services panel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Adam Smith’s first bill as House Armed Services chairman will surely stir contentious debate during the panel’s markup Wednesday of the annual Pentagon policy bill, a marathon session that is expected to extend into the early morning hours Thursday.

The chairman’s mark — the Washington Democrat’s portion of the massive defense authorization bill — tees up partisan fights on Guantanamo Bay, nuclear weapons and the border wall. It says nothing on President Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force, an issue that Smith said Monday would likely find its way in the bill through a bipartisan amendment.

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The bill, which authorizes $733 billion in new defense spending, would discontinue bans put in place by previous defense bills on transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay detention center, save for transfers to Libya, Yemen, Syria and Somalia. The bill would also explicitly disallow new detainees at Guantanamo, including American citizens.

Meanwhile, Smith supports a ban on the deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons, a provision that the Strategic Forces Subcommittee included in its version of the bill last week, over Republican objections.

“The chairman feels strongly that the nuclear arsenal is too large, that we spend too much money on legacy weapons systems when we have emerging requirements like cyber, like AI, like space, which aren’t getting the kind of focus, that’s required,” a committee aide said. “He wants us to reevaluate where we’re spending money.”

The same aide said that Smith never contemplated “taking out a leg of the [nuclear] triad,” but instead wants to focus on how to better use the current arsenal.

Border battle

The most raucous debate could be over Trump’s politically divisive southern border wall.

Smith’s bill would put a “blanket” ban on the Pentagon using its funds to construct a wall, fence or physical barrier. It also would not authorize any money to backfill fiscal 2019 military construction accounts tapped for the wall.

[House Armed Services strikes agreement on Trump’s Space Force]

The chairman’s mark would ban the U.S. from transferring F-35 stealth fighters to Turkey if Turkey acquires the Russian-made S — 400 missile defense system. Turkey operating both weapons systems, as it would like to do, would risk giving the Russian military access to the jets’ secret capabilities.

The Senate Armed Services bill includes the same ban. And the Pentagon on Friday told Turkey that if it buys Russian-made missile defense systems, it will be removed from the F-35 joint strike fighter program.

The bill would also prohibit any defense funds from being used to reduce below 28,500 the number of active duty troops stationed in South Korea — unless the defense secretary certifies that doing so will not undermine U.S. regional allies. That provision would take away from Trump a possible concession he could give in future nuclear talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un. Since his inauguration, Trump has met with Kim in an attempt to de-escalate nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The bill continues support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, authorizing $4.5 billion to fund the Afghanistan Security Services. Additionally, the chairman’s mark would make it easier for Afghans who have supported the U.S. military in their country, and thus endangered their own lives or their families’ lives, to immigrate to the U.S. While immigration often divides the parties, both parties in the past have supported easing immigration restrictions on local Afghans who have aided the U.S. military — especially interpreters, who are often in danger of retribution for their service.

The House bill also authorizes $140 million for personnel to oversee the privately run military housing facilities on bases throughout the country. Earlier this year, military families told lawmakers of rampant, dangerous health risks like mold and lead exposure, and structural issues.

Smith also included language that would require all military services to retain their assistant secretaries for installations and environment, the person tasked with overseeing military housing, among other responsibilities. Earlier this year, Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe voiced support for that proposal.

Committee staff say they are on schedule to have the defense authorization bill on the House floor the first week following the July 4 recess.

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