Heavy equipment works on a road construction project in Afghanistan in 2011. The US House approved several amendments July 23 that, if enacted in the final version of the defense spending bill, would shrink the 'Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund' by hundreds of millions of dollars. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — US House members signaled Tuesday night that they are ready to move beyond America’s post-9/11 wars, and several more telling national security votes are coming Wednesday.
Republican and Democratic members supported several amendments — some overwhelmingly — to a Pentagon spending bill that would divert funds meant for various projects in Afghanistan.
The House approved several amendments that, if enacted in the final version of the defense spending bill, would shrink the “Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund” by hundreds of millions of dollars. Three of the approved Afghanistan amendments were offered by Republicans, and two by Democrats.
Three propose to apply the dollars that would be stripped from the fund, which pays for infrastructure projects in Washington’s drive to build functioning institutions and governance, to paying down the US federal deficit.
One Republican-crafted amendment that was adopted by a wide bipartisan margin, 332-94, simply proposes to prohibit “funds in the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund from being used to commence new projects.”
Another, sponsored by a bipartisan group, would shrink a fund used to help build Afghanistan’s security forces by $553.8 million. That’s the exact amount of a contract the Pentagon has negotiated with a Russian firm to supply Afghanistan with military helicopters.
Defense Department officials say the Afghans know how to operate, repair and maintain only Russian choppers, so it makes sense to purchase such models. But lawmakers see an increasingly hostile Moscow, and the sponsors’ goal is to block the Pentagon from being able to pay the Russian firm, Rosoboronexport.
The message from Republicans and Democrats was unmistakable: Deficit reduction at home is more important than infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, where more than a decade of war and stability operations largely have produced a stalemate with Taliban and al-Qaida forces.
Those votes came as the House moved quickly to pass, reject or withdraw around 70 of 100 amendments to its version of the fiscal 2014 defense appropriations bill. With around 30 amendments to go, final passage of the legislation is expected Wednesday evening.
The House’s turn away from overseas wars and toward domestic issues such as deficit reduction has been years in the making. But a strong bipartisan national security voting bloc has remained in place even as more and more libertarian Republicans, who mostly oppose the massive federal spending that comes with global conflicts, have been elected.
That security bloc will be tested Wednesday when the lower chamber takes up several amendments on national security spending and policies that have been in place during the 9/11 era.
The first amendment likely to get a floor vote, and which would provide a further clue about the state of the security bloc, would be one that seeks a smaller Overseas Contingency Fund than the level approved by the House Appropriations Committee.
The bipartisan measure would cut the Appropriations Committee’s proposed $85.8 billion contingency fund by $3.5 billion “to better correspond with the president’s request.” The White House sought a war-funding measure $1.5 billion smaller than the committee approved.
The measure is being pushed by House Budget Committee Ranking Member Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and tea party Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, along with Reps. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., and Patrick Murphy, D-Fla.
The main event of the appropriations floor process will come late Wednesday afternoon when the House will take up amendments to limit the National Security Agency’s controversial spying program, limit US aid to Egypt and place strings on dollars eligible for use to pay for a Syria military intervention.
One being pushed by Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Fla., proposes that none of the funds appropriated in the final fiscal 2014 defense spending bill could be “used by the NSA to target a US person or acquire and store the content of a US person’s communications, including phone calls and emails,” according to a summary of the amendments released Monday evening by the office of House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Another proposes to end what it calls the “authority for the blanket collection of records under the Patriot Act,” as well as proposing to bar the NSA and other agencies from “using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect records, including telephone call records, that pertain to persons who are not subject to an investigation under Section 215.”
It is being pushed by conservative GOP Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, liberal Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and other members.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Ranking Member Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., are lobbying against the NSA amendment.
“The [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] business records program has contributed to disrupting numerous terrorist attacks against our nation. It has been reviewed and authorized by all three branches of government and is subject to strict controls,” the two said in a joint statement. “Since the public disclosure of the business records program, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has explored how the program can be modified to add extra privacy protections without sacrificing its effectiveness.
Senior NSA officials met with House members Tuesday to lobby against the amendments.
Another Amash amendment targets US aid dollars to Cairo. This one proposes that no funds from the 2014 defense appropriations bill be used to pay for “military or paramilitary operations in Egypt,” and is co-sponsored by Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla.
House members also will get a chance to weigh in publicly about a possible US military mission in Syria when they vote on an amendment offered by Rep. Trey Radel, R-Ohio. That measure would prohibit “the use of any funds with respect to military action in Syria to the extent such action would be inconsistent with the War Powers Resolution.”
GOP House members clashed with President Barack Obama in 2010 over the Libya operation, claiming Obama ignored the decades-old law when he plunged American forces into that nation’s civil conflict.
The vote will come days after interventionist Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have the upper hand against rebel forces.
McCain dismissed a gloomy forecast about the success of a US intervention provided by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, saying an American mission could work.
“Of course, [Dempsey’s] answers [are] most disappointing because it has nothing to do with the realities of the challenges we face. He basically describes a scenario where it’s impossible to intervene, and that’s not true,” McCain told reporters. “The status quo is not acceptable, and that is that Bashar al-Assad is winning this battle.”