WASHINGTON ― Sparring over the size of the defense budget and partisan recriminations over the U.S. exit from Afghanistan are expected to dominate the House Armed Services Committee’s marathon markup of its annual policy bill on Wednesday.
On Monday, centrist Rep. Elaine Luria, of Virginia, became the only Democrat to come out in favor of a Republican amendment to boost the bill’s top line by $25 billion. Because panel Democrats hold a two-seat majority, Democrats cannot afford any other defectors if Republicans unify.
Luria told Defense News this week she thought other Democrats would join her.
“In order for it to pass, at least two Democrats have to be on board with it, and I would say in the end, when people see what’s in here, it’s probably going to be more than that,” she said of the amendment.
“Everyone has found something in this budget where they think it missed the mark, and by adding, I think that this will alleviate the concerns across a broad range of Democrats who have found shortfalls in this budget submission,” Luria added.
The markup is expected to lay bare the divisions among Democrats over the proper size for the defense budget. While Republicans and some Democrats have said the Biden proposal of $716 billion for the Pentagon is inadequate to deter Russia and China, some progressives have called for defense cuts to boost domestic priorities.
HASC Chair Adam Smith, D-Wash., has proposed a bill that matches Biden’s top line. On Tuesday, Smith said, “I don’t have an enormous amount of sympathy” for progressive arguments Washington should divert defense funds to domestic priorities because Congress has spent trillions to fight the pandemic.
“I don’t support the argument: ‘Look at the defense budget, oh my gosh we can’t spend another $25 billion, because we have all these other priorities,’” he said. “We spend a lot of money on all those other priorities.”
The $25 billion amendment from HASC ranking member Mike Rogers, of Alabama, includes $9.8 billion for weapons procurement programs, reversing some divestments the Biden administration had planned in order to prioritize leap-ahead technologies. The Rogers amendment proposes $5.2 billion more for research and development, including emerging technologies, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.
Luria said she backs the amendment in part because it would bar the Navy from decommissioning three aging cruisers, would add a second Arleigh Burke-class destroyer and would help stabilize the shipbuilding industry.
“My argument is that of course we have to get new technologies and advance those, but in the meantime we can’t gut the force we have in the hope we’ll have a new force with new technology later,” Luria said. “Essentially, shrinking the Navy is not in line with the statement [from the Pentagon] that China is our No. 1 threat.”
Rogers expressed confidence the amendment would pass in committee and pave the way for the panel to approve the bill on a bipartisan basis ― a goal Smith has said he’s seeking.
“This NDAA is going to pass out [of HASC], probably Thursday morning, with bipartisan support, with a significant $25 billion increase over and above what the president asked for,” Rogers said Monday.
Democrats enjoy some political cover for the increase after the Senate Armed Services Committee, on a bipartisan basis, advanced a bill with its own $25 billion increase last month. On the flip side, Democratic aides say pressure to approve the increase is building on Democrats, particularly as Biden faces mainstream blowback over Afghanistan.
The GOP’s campaign arm has already launched Afghanistan-themed attacks against Democrats facing tough reelection battles, according to one House Democratic aide.
“If they vote down more defense spending, they’ll get hit twice as hard,” the aide said, adding: “I think Republicans are very clearly winning the messaging war on Afghanistan, and you can tie the $25 billion to the Afghanistan withdrawal easily.”
HASC NDAA markups typically last all day and stretch into the following morning, and Democrats are bracing for a long slog on the topic of the withdrawal.
“There’s going to be so much grandstanding, so many messaging amendments, so much arguing, infighting occurring over that issue,” the aide said. “That’s probably going to be a source of the most vexation as we go through this markup.”
Hours before the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan formally ended Monday, Rogers and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Republicans are planning a blizzard of amendments addressing Republican criticisms of the military exit.
“We’re going to use every legislative possibility to make this case,” McCarthy said, though his options are limited with Democrats in control of the House.
As of Monday, Rogers said he had roughly 50 GOP amendments addressing what Republicans see as Biden’s failures with regard to Afghanistan, promising a “vigorous debate in the NDAA.” Among them are measures requiring the administration to brief lawmakers on terror groups that could grow under Taliban control and to detail the decision to pull the military out of Bagram Air Base.
Another is a measure from Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., that would keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan until all Americans are evacuated. It also orders an accounting of the American and military hardware the U.S. left behind in Afghanistan and bans the U.S. from recognizing the Taliban regime or sending it aid.
The head of U.S. Central Command said Monday the U.S. left inoperable 73 aircraft, 70 MRAPs and 27 Humvees. However, Republicans have faulted Biden for the broader array of modern military equipment Taliban forces captured when they overran Afghan forces who failed to defend district centers.
“It is time for Congress to step up because of the administration bungling this withdrawal,” Gallagher said at a separate Republican press conference Tuesday. “This is a matter of life and death. We don’t leave our people behind.”
One point of bipartisan overlap between Smith and Rogers is that they want the administration to detail its counterterrorism strategy for South Asia in light of the threats posed by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan. But while Smith has said he wants his panel to conduct oversight of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, some Democrats are concerned about the markup as a venue.
“I’m afraid it’s going to be a free-for-all,” a Democratic aide to committee said last week.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.