WASHINGTON ― On the one hand, the House Armed Service Committee’s draft defense policy bill would check President Donald Trump on his border wall, and on the other, it holds back some when it comes to restricting America’s nuclear arsenal.
Speaking with reporters Monday, Rep. Adam Smith acknowledged he has sought to balance the concerns of progressives (who likely favor the border restrictions) and conservatives (who already oppose its restrictions on a low-yield nuclear warhead). A vote on the administration’s controversial ban on transgender troops has been punted out of committee to when the bill is considered on the House floor.
After years on the committee, most recently as ranking member, Smith was named the panel’s chairman when Democrats assumed control of the House in January. Committee staff have spent recent weeks gauging members’ priorities for the must-pass bill, but with 102 members, the road to final passage is still a mystery, even to Smith.
His approach, he said, will be to lead an open process for debate and amendments. “We’ve tried to put together a bill that I think reflects good, solid national security priorities,” Smith said. “But I cannot say for sure now who will vote for it and who will vote against it. So we have to work that, both on the committee and on the floor.”
Up for debate in committee on Wednesday, the bill backs House Democrats’ proposed $733 billion national security budget, which falls short of the $750 billion Trump requested. Republicans argue the larger number reflects the 3-5 percent budget growth defense officials say they need to counter Russia and China.
On Monday, Smith countered that the defense officials had initially sought a $733 billion budget for 2020. (Seventy House Republicans also called for $733 billion when it looked like the president had ordered a cut to $700 billion.)
“I am genuinely concerned ― and I think we have enough history with the Pentagon to see it in the past ― that when they’re given more than they have expected, there is a lot of inefficiency and waste that follows,” Smith said.
Beyond the top line, the draft contains roughly 1,000 policy provisions ― but not all of the nuclear policy restrictions Smith might have liked.
Instead of a proposal to make it U.S. policy not to strike first with nuclear weapons, which Smith has advocated in the past, he has proposed a noncontroversial independent report on the impacts of such a policy.
“I have an approach to this: It’s not about me, it’s about the caucus, it’s about the committee, and, yes, I have priorities, some more important than others,” Smith said. “I also want to reflect the majority of Congress and in general what it wants.”
Still, Republicans have focused on language in the bill to ban the deployment of a submarine-launched low-yield warhead, the W76-2, which was ordered by the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review last year. The proposed ban caused a partisan split on the Strategic Force Subcommittee last week, which Smith downplayed Monday.
“What we propose in our mark really isn’t that dramatic, in my opinion,” Smith said. “The most dramatic thing is probably the low-yield nuclear weapons. Other than that, we’re not having a huge fight, despite what you may have heard from our Republican colleagues.”
Smith predicted partisan fights on that proposal and provisions on the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. The bill would ban the Pentagon from accepting any new detainees and deny the White House’s $88 million request to build a new detainee prison at the base.
The bill would also force a debate on the Trump administration’s border wall funding maneuvers by proposing a blanket ban on building a physical barrier by using Pentagon and military construction accounts.
The bill would also deny the president’s $7.2 billion request to backfill military construction funds diverted to the wall, and it would slash the amount of money the military can shift between accounts from $9.5 billion to $1.5 billion.
It would require the Department of Homeland Security to reimburse the Defense Department for border activities, require a certification that the border deployments haven’t hurt military readiness and require that troops deployed to the border are performing tasks in line with their individual skills and unit mission.
The issue is about executive overreach and the president’s unprecedented use of emergency declarations to undermine the legislature’s authority, Smith said.
“I would hope there is some bipartisan concern about that,” he added.
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.