Congress

McConnell amendment pits GOP security establishment against Trump

The amendment effectively opposes Trump’s troop withdrawal plans from overseas terrorism fights

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conducts a news conference after the Senate Policy luncheons in the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has set the stage for what could become a Senate rebuke of President Donald Trump’s stewardship of America’s wars.

The action is set to begin with a procedural vote Thursday afternoon on an amendment by the Kentucky Republican that would effectively oppose Trump’s plans to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops from their long-running overseas fight against terrorism.

It is not clear how Thursday’s procedural vote will turn out. It might even be read by senators from both parties as a referendum on an internal Senate struggle over amendments — not a statement about U.S. foreign policy.

However, the fact that McConnell wants to put the Senate on record about it is telling in itself, experts say.

The amendment to a Middle East policy bill is a nonbinding sense of the Senate provision. But if it clears the procedural hurdle and is then approved, it would serve as a warning to Trump: Only bring U.S. troops home from Syria and Afghanistan slowly and carefully, if at all.

Message from the establishment

McConnell’s amendment hits the floor in the context of Trump repeatedly rebuffing and even ridiculing America’s defense, intelligence and foreign policy elites, not only on the counterterrorism issue but also on policy toward Russia, Iran, North Korea and more.

The latest spat surfaced Wednesday when Trump tweeted a rebuttal of U.S. intelligence agencies’ Tuesday testimony countering Trump’s claims that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, that North Korea is not, and that the Islamic State and al-Qaida are all but completely defeated.

McConnell’s amendment is one of the highest profile attempts yet by the national security establishment to push back against not only Trump but also the millions of Americans who side with him on these and other issues.

“While the majority of the Republican base is inclined to support withdrawals from Syria or Afghanistan, elected Republican officials tend to support the foreign policy establishment’s views of these issues,” said Douglas Foyle, a professor of government at Wesleyan University. “While normally this action would fall under the category of ‘cheap talk,’ the context suggests at least the start of some separation between the administration and the Congress on Syria and Afghanistan.”

In a floor speech, McConnell, as is his wont, was polite and indirect in his condemnation of the president’s policy.

McConnell praised Trump for making “huge progress” in fighting insurgents in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and he sought to put the focus on what he called Democratic opposition to his amendment.

But the amendment is unmistakably a message to the president not to, as McConnell put it, “take our foot off the gas” in Syria and Afghanistan but rather to “keep up those strategies that are clearly working.”

“Real dangers to us and to our allies still remain in both these nations so we must continue to confront them there,” McConnell said.

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Evolving strategy

Trump has been clear about his desire to bring troops home from Syria and Afghanistan, even though the implementation of those withdrawals has evolved.

“Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now. We won,” Trump said in a December video on Twitter about Syria.

The commander in chief’s intent was clear, but the pullout of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria has yet to start, and is now expected to take several months once it does.

In Afghanistan, Trump was reportedly considering bringing home as soon as possible up to half of the 14,000 U.S. troops there. But now the Taliban has reportedly agreed in principle to a peace agreement that would require the withdrawal of all U.S. forces in exchange for a Taliban vow to block terrorists from regaining a haven in that country. The Afghan government, though, is not as of now a party to the agreement.

Whereas Trump has said the Islamic State and al-Qaida have been essentially routed, McConnell, by contrast, warned in his floor speech that those groups are “not yet defeated.”

The text of McConnell's amendment is neoconservative gospel. It opposes a “precipitous” withdrawal of U.S. troops that occurs “without a countervailing effort to secure gains” — practically a call to step up, rather than reduce, counterterrorism operations.

The amendment, however, indicates that other nations can and should do more to provide the necessary force.

The amendment warns, though, that terrorists may regroup and that U.S. withdrawal could create a power vacuum that Russia and Iran could exploit.

The measure calls for the Trump administration to conduct a strategy review and to certify that the conditions for the “enduring defeat” of terrorism “have been met” before initiating any “significant” extrication of U.S. troops.

McConnell's amendment is co-sponsored by 19 other Republican senators, many of them on committees that oversee the Defense Department.

Partisan row

Thursday’s vote is on a motion to invoke cloture, which would end debate and move the Senate toward a vote on McConnell’s amendment.

McConnell said in his Wednesday floor speech that Democrats have opposed bringing his amendment to a vote either because they oppose staying the course in the counterterrorism fight or they are afraid of the politics of casting the vote.

A Democratic aide said Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer opposed McConnell’s amendment because Republicans had not allowed a Democratic amendment to also receive a vote.

Democrats have wanted a vote on an amendment pertaining to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who has ties to both the Kremlin and Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, who was convicted last year of financial fraud.

Senate Democrats, with some GOP support, have tried to pass a measure that would seek to block the administration’s termination of sanctions against Deripaska. The House has already passed such legislation.

If the Senate falls short of the 60 votes needed for cloture, it could be because of this amendment spat, not because Democrats oppose the merits of McConnell’s measure.

But if the Senate gets the 60 votes, there will follow a clear decision on whether to send Trump a polite but unmistakable foreign policy message.

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