UPDATED WASHINGTON: For the first time in its history, the crucial congressional defense policy bill was passed on a party-line vote in the House of Representatives, felling the last truly bipartisan tradition in the House, except for seersucker Thursdays.
As the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Adam Smith put in a tweet: “Today, the House passed H.R. 2500, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020 by a vote of 220 to 197, without the support of a single Republican.”
One of the most august Hill watchers in the national security establishment, John Isaacs of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, offers this perspective: “With Republicans in charge in past years, Democrats were willing to vote for a bill despite disagreeing with many decisions. With Republicans in charge, they permitted many Democratic amendments on the House floor — as long as they weren’t serious or were sure losers,” John Isaacs says. “For example, they would never permit an AUMF (Authorization for the Use of Military Force) vote. Now the shoe, or is it the power, is on the other foot and Republicans could not accept total winning. Their hypocrisy shows no bounds.”
And, given the nature of Congress, this division sets a precedent for future NDAAs.
Mark Cancian, one of the most experienced defense budget watchers in town, is “surprised that there were no Republican votes supporting the House NDAA. In the past there has almost always been at least some bipartisan support. The Republicans could have supported the bill while still expressing their opposition to elements they found objectionable.”
Even a staunch Republican, Rick Berger at the American Enterprise Institute, was surprised by the absence of a single Republican vote. He recently studied NDAA House votes for the last 30 years: “This is the lowest bill vote tally we’ve ever had. We never even got close to that.” He “thought we’d have some defectors.”
A committed national security Democrat, Kingston Reif, explained it this way:
“Now in the minority for the first time in eight years, the Republican leadership of the House Armed Services Committee made it very clear from the start that it would not vote for an NDAA that reflected new Chairman Adam Smith’s core views and priorities. This stands in stark contrast to how many Democrats voted on the NDAA when the GOP was in charge, despite the fact that those bills were chock full of Obama veto bait. So what’s changed, you ask? I think the answer is pretty obvious.”
The Arms Control Association, where Reif is the director for disarmament and threat reduction, not surprisingly, “strongly supports the bill primarily because it places a much-needed check on the Trump Administration’s unnecessary, unsustainable, and unsafe plans to augment the role of and increase spending on nuclear weapons and undermine critical arms control and nonproliferation agreements.”
Kingston puts a very different spin on the vote from Berger, as is not uncommon with Washington tribalists.
“By passing the legislation, the House has greater leverage to retain these and many other important provisions in upcoming conference negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate. Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill rubber stamps the Trump Administration’s redundant and reckless effort to expand U.S. nuclear capabilities.”
Berger says only one Republican amendment actually made it through the meat grinder that is the House Rules Committee and was put to a vote on the House floor. He ascribes some of this to the fact that Smith’s home district in Washington is “a much more liberal district than before.” He also said that “people are casting this as a win for (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi.”
As speaker, Pelosi can control much of what her chamber does. The House, while its members often call it the People’s House, is actually much less “democratic” than the Senate. The House leadership can, if it wishes, almost completely control what votes occur on the floor using the tool of the Rules Committee, where the majority hold twice as many seats, guaranteeing majority control of the crucial body. And the chairman of the committee is often one of the most adept partisans the party in power can find.
A Democratic Hill watcher pointed to Republican dissatisfaction with the absence from the NDAA of funding for the border wall. “The GOP wasn’t happy with the overall tone in the bill, especially the prohibition against funding for the southern border wall. Republicans also had multiple policy objections and concerns about what they believed to be a historic lack of bipartisan consultation on especially the strategic forces matters, nuclear weapons in particular.”
The Hill watcher added that Republicans further adamantly objected to the bill’s lower top-level funding level of $733 billion vs. the Trump Administration’s request of $750 billion. This shouldn’t come as a surprise — President Donald Trump earlier this week threatened to veto the NDAA if the lower level passes Congress.
Mike Tierney, founder of The Space Budget and long-time budget guru, is surprised by the unity of Republicans. “The level of unity demonstrated by the Republican caucus during the NDAA vote is rare for either party, regardless of who controls the House and takes lead on the legislation. There are typically some moderates who join on passage, and we may see that down the road on the conference version,” Tierney says. “However, this is a strong demonstration of the House GOP’s commitment to higher defense funding as part of the broader budget deal that continues to elude legislators. I’m skeptical that this will ultimately impact the final conference version getting passed for the 59th consecutive year, but these are unpredictable times.”
UPDATE BEGINS: Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that he does not think the vote “indicates that Republicans are going to do something that would ultimately block the passage of the NDAA this year—that’s not how I would read this at all. It is really more of a symbolic protest vote, because they knew that the bill would still pass and go to conference committee.”
Rep. Mac Thornberry, HASC ranking member, would beg to differ. “There have been some inferences and even more than inferences on the floor that there is some sort of political maneuvers or games going on. I have not seen that in the Armed Services Committee.”
No matter what the motivation of the Republican boycott of the bill, Harrison says “What really matters is how the Republicans vote when the bill comes out of conference and back to the floor for a final vote. Then I would expect to see bi-partisan support, and that may be easier to get if whatever comes out of conference implies a slightly higher top-line that is more in line with the Senate-passed version of the bill.”
He added: “And it’s always good to remind people that the NDAA is just a policy bill. It does not provide appropriations, so it does not ultimately determine the top-line budget for DoD.” UPDATE ENDS
The next step for the NDAA is the House and Senate Conference Committee, where the two sides will attempt to hammer out compromises on their differences with one of the most obvious the top-line DoD spending ceiling number. The Senate version approved the administration’s request.
There also are major differences between the two on their approach to President Donald Trump’s much-desired Space Force — which the House calls the Space Corps.
Theresa Hitchens also contributed to this story.