WASHINGTON ― Congress went two-for-two swatting down measures to slash the national security budget by $74 billion, rejecting a proposal Wednesday from Sen. Bernie Sanders to redirect the money toward domestic needs.
The Senate voted 23-77 against an amendment to its version of the $740.5 billion annual defense policy bill. Progressives floated the plan to use defense dollars (excluding salaries and health care of military personnel) to address the pandemic’s economic fallout.
The amendment’s sponsors argued the social spending would better align with people’s needs and views, and that national security should be redefined in the wake of the global pandemic. They said the military budget is loaded with waste and unjustly benefits defense contractors.
“Given all the unprecedented crisis the country faces, now is not the time to increase the Pentagon’s bloated $740 billion budget,” said Sanders, I-Vt. “At a time when 30 million Americans are in danger of losing their jobs, now is not the time to be spending more on national defense than we did during the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Korean War.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., encouraged senators to vote against the amendment. McConnell accused Democrats of trying to “decimate the defense budget” and chided Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for throwing Sanders his support.
“The Democratic leader, who in almost every floor speech tries to accuse this administration of being too soft on America’s adversaries, wants to literally decimate our defense budget to finance a socialist spending spree,” McConnell said. “Defense spending demonstrates our will to defend ourselves and our interests in a dangerous world. Keeping our nation safe is our foremost constitutional duty. We cannot shirk it.”
Progressives hoped to spark an internal debate among Democrats, who were evenly split by the Senate vote.
SASC’s ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said the amendment would jeopardize defense-related jobs and upend the carefully negotiated bipartisan budget agreement from 2018, which set spending levels for defense and domestic spending for two years. He acknowledged Congress needs to address historically neglected communities.
“This across-the-board approach, it’s good for a headline, it’s good to make a point, but we’re here to make policy, and I hope we do make policy,” Reed said.
Winning 23 Democratic votes was “the most significant step forward in recent years,” to reduce the military’s budget, Sanders said in a statement afterward.
“We are going to continue building a political movement which understands that it is far more important to invest in working people, the children, the elderly, and the poor than in spending more on defense than the next 11 nations combined,” he said.
On Tuesday, the House rejected a companion bill, 93-324, which is roughly a 3-to-1 margin. Democrats split, 92-139, while 185 Republicans voted “no.”
After the House vote, advocates and the measure’s co-sponsors said change was on the horizon.
“Ninety-three members of Congress stood together to oppose a bloated $740 billion defense budget,” tweeted Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Though our amendment didn’t pass, progressive power is stronger than ever. We will keep fighting for pro-peace, pro-people budgets until it becomes a reality.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.