Five changes Democrats will seek at Pentagon if they win power
Democrats are pledging to rein in or reverse President Trump’s defense agenda if they take back Congress in November.
From seeking to ensure that transgender troops can continue to serve to blocking the administration from building low-yield nuclear weapons, Democrats have in their sights several moves Trump made in his first two years in office.
Democrats would need to take back both chambers of Congress to pass laws reversing Trump’s decisions, however. And while many are expecting a blue wave in November, the party faces a tougher time taking back the Senate than the House.
Still, Democrats are getting ready for action should they win back the gavels for the House and Senate armed services committees.
Here are five defense priorities Democrats identify if they win back the majority.
Cutting off military support in Yemen
The United States supports a Saudi Arabia–led coalition in Yemen’s civil war with aerial refueling, intelligence sharing and billions of dollars in weapons sales.
As the civilian death toll spikes in the war, more and more lawmakers in both parties have expressed concern about U.S. military involvement. Still, it’s been largely Democrats that have voted in favor of efforts to curtail or end that support.
A group of House Democrats led by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) have introduced a War Powers Resolution that would end U.S. military support. They are looking to force a vote in November.
Khanna said Friday he expects it to either fail or for Republicans to refuse to bring it to a vote despite its privileged status. Either way, he said, support from top Democrats for the resolution shows they’ll be able to bring it back in January if they take the House and the coalition does not improve its conduct.
“If I were the Saudis, I’d be very, very afraid that the relationship with the United States is in jeopardy, that the sentiment on Capitol Hill has changed, that the Democratic Party is going to stand up strongly against their brutality in Yemen,” Khanna said in an interview with The Hill on Friday. “The Saudis have really got to take very, very concrete actions if they want to avoid this fate in January.”
The resolution is co-sponsored by House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), among others.
Smith listed Yemen as an area of concern when asked at a recent conference what his priorities would be as Armed Services chairman.
“I don’t think we are pursuing the right policy there,” he said at the Defense News conference. “It is leading to the largest humanitarian crisis on the planet.”
In the Senate, Armed Services ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) called Yemen an issue of “national importance.” He added that addressing the situation “can’t wait” until next year’s defense policy bill, where major defense issues are tackled.
“It has to be done much more promptly than that,” he said.
More oversight of special operations
A deadly ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers last year put a spotlight on far-flung, little-discussed U.S. military operations around the world.
Democrats say they want to put the spotlight back on Niger and other special operations they say have received little oversight, allowing the number of countries the military operates in to balloon.
They have also argued Trump has given the Pentagon too much free rein on military operations, allowing service members to get into deadly situations with little to no public scrutiny.
“Our military is very expansive right now,” Smith said. “It’s supposed to be train and equip. Niger was supposed to be train and equip. But in a lot of those places, our guys are getting out front ... without proper congressional oversight, I think even without proper Pentagon or White House oversight.”
Khanna said Democrats should hold three or four days of public hearings for the Pentagon to detail all its military operations around the world.
“We need to ask the secretary of Defense, ‘Why do you have troops there? What is the mission? How is that helping ordinary Americans? How much are we spending?’” Khanna said. “And we need to expose for the American people how overextended it is and why we are in so many different places around the world.”
Reversing Trump’s transgender troops ban
Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military has been tied up in the courts since almost immediately after he first tweeted it.
And because of court orders, the ban hasn’t taken effect and transgender people have continued serving.
Still, transgender troops and their advocates have said the precarious status of their service is a slap in the face and harms readiness.
Democrats have introduced bills to block the ban and sought to attach them to the annual defense policy bill.
If Democrats retake power, Reed said he was sure the issue would “come up.”
Smith said he would fight for the rights of LGBT troops to serve against “some bigoted bias with no basis in reality.”
“I think it’s wrong and something in the committee that, if I were the chairman, I would be actively involved in fighting,” he said.
Blocking a low-yield nuclear weapon
The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review called for the development of a low-yield nuclear warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The administration argues it needs such a weapon for deterrence purposes, as adversaries might think the United States would never use its current arsenal.
Democrats lost a fight this year to block funding for the weapon, with the annual defense policy bill authorizing it and the Energy Department spending bill allocating $65 million to get the project started.
But Democrats are hoping to get another bite at the apple next year.
Smith, who also opposed the Obama administration’s nuclear modernization plans, listed the issue as among his top priorities should he get to be chairman. Further signaling his focus, he introduced a bill this month to ban the weapon.
“I think the Republican Party and the Nuclear Posture Review contemplates a lot more nuclear weapons than I and I think most Democrats think we need. We also think the idea of low-yield nuclear weapons are extremely problematic going forward,” Smith said at the Defense News conference. “When we look at the larger budget picture, that’s not the best place to spend the money.”
Meanwhile, Reed said he be will watching whether the Russians come back into compliance with an arms control treaty, but said the issue of low-yield weapons “might come back for reevaluation and review.”
Trimming the defense budget
Smith’s concern with the cost of nuclear weapons upgrades is part of a larger argument about a defense budget that has reached $716 billion.
“I think the number’s too high, and it’s certainly not going to be there in the future,” Smith said at the conference, arguing that rising deficits compounded by the GOP’s tax bill require cuts to be made.
Defense hawks and the Pentagon pushed for $716 billion to address what they described as an urgent readiness crisis.
Few Democrats argue that the military is not facing readiness issues. But Smith said the military needs to be “smart” about how it spends its money. For example, he cited the Navy’s 355-ship goal, arguing that focusing on a number is flawed logic because “capability matters.”
Reed, meanwhile, said he is concerned about stability in the budget, saying he wants to tackle the sequestration law known as the Budget Control Act.
“The first priority transcends the committee and that is finding a forceful way to end sequestration, so that we could operate both on the defense side and the nondefense side with the ability to adequately fund programs,” he said.
Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he does not expect dramatic cuts in the defense budget regardless of who wins in November.
“To get any kind of budget deal to raise the budget caps you can’t use reconciliation in the Senate, so you’ve got to have 60 votes in the Senate,” he told reporters at a briefing on his latest budget analysis. “Regardless of what happens in the election, neither party is going to have 60 votes in the Senate. So this is going to have to be a bipartisan deal of some kind, and the track record of this suggests that we’re probably going to get a two-year budget deal because it takes them so long to negotiate it.”