House Democrats needle Biden on Afghanistan plans, defense spending

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House Democrats broke ranks with the Biden administration early Thursday morning, approving a defense policy bill that asks hard questions about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan while drastically increasing the Pentagon’s budget.

The vote tallies for the National Defense Authorization Act, passed with significant Democratic support in the House Armed Services Committee, don’t fit the neat partisan narratives drawn up in November 2020 concerning reductions in defense spending. And they show frustration among moderate Democrats over how the war was wound down, signaling trouble ahead for a White House that already has razor-thin margins in the House and Senate.

The fresh chaos of the Afghanistan withdrawal was one of the marquee debates in the panel's marathon deliberations of the NDAA, and Republicans made slamming President Joe Biden a central talking point. But the legislation tapped into bipartisan frustration with what many lawmakers saw as a sloppy rush to the exit that left American citizens and Afghan partners behind.

The shots Biden took over Afghanistan followed a bipartisan rebuke of his $715 billion Pentagon spending plan, which a broad majority of the panel voted to increase by $24 billion for a total of $740 billion. The move, driven by Republicans and moderate Democrats, will help make it easier for the defense bill to achieve a bipartisan vote on the House floor, but will almost certainly spur real opposition from Democrats' left flank.

In July, the Senate Armed Services Committee also approved a $25 billion increase to the defense budget by a 25-1 margin, indicating the problem with the president’s own party is hardly confined to the House.

Conservatives, however, are still poised to oppose the bill over some Democratic-backed provisions, including efforts to combat extremism in the ranks and to require women to register for a military draft.

Afghanistan: The panel plowed through dozens of amendments from Democrats and Republicans demanding details about the situation in Afghanistan following the pullout, including how the administration plans to combat terrorism and extricate U.S. citizens and Afghan partners still there.

"What we saw in Afghanistan last month was devastating. The decisions that President Biden has made … were disastrous,” ranking Armed Services Republican Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said. “I fear America is less safe because of them. These self-inflicted wounds have made our job even more important and difficult.”

Two amendments from Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) will require the Pentagon to report to the committee no later than Nov. 1 on why it left Bagram Air Base and why it ended maintenance support to the Afghan air force. Each passed with unanimous support.

The panel also adopted an amendment from Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) requiring an annual report and twice-a-year briefings to Congress that assess "over the horizon" capabilities to conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, along with continuing efforts to retrieve U.S. citizens, and contingency plans for continuing to evacuate Afghans who hold special immigrant visas and the threat posed by terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS-K.

A similar measure from Rogers would require the Pentagon to submit plans to lawmakers outlining how it will assist in the evacuation of U.S. citizens, and also conduct counterterrorism missions alongside intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations following the pullout.

Still, Democrats rejected a harsh GOP rebuke of Biden that would have declared that Congress has "lost confidence" in the commander in chief over the withdrawal.

While most of the proposals were focused tightly on the final months of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) warned lawmakers against targeting only the Biden administration and argued that Congress should take a broader look at the longest U.S. conflict.

"If we're going to really honestly look at Afghanistan, we need to look at all 20 years," Smith said. "There was a lot that went into that, and I think simply focusing on the last four months would do an incredible disservice to the men and women who have served there."

To that end, the panel approved a proposal from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) to empanel a 12-member bipartisan commission on Afghanistan to examine the entirety of the decades-long conflict and make recommendations about lessons learned from the war.

Despite bipartisan furor over the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal, the panel turned back some of more politically pointed proposals. Democrats rejected in a 28-31 vote an amendment from Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) stating that "Congress has lost confidence" in Biden as commander in chief amid the withdrawal.

Increased Pentagon spending: Armed Services voted 42-17 to boost the bill's topline budget by $24 billion, a move engineered by Rogers that 14 Democrats supported.

The original budget request was a red line for defense hawks, and approving more Pentagon spending will likely coax Republicans to back the bill when it hits the House floor.

Rogers' amendment targets wish lists outlined by the military services and commanders that didn’t make the cut for the administration’s budget. It would inject nearly $10 billion into Pentagon coffers to buy more weapons, including billions more for Navy shipbuilding efforts, more aircraft and additional combat vehicles. It also would boost Pentagon research and development efforts by $5.2 billion.

Fourteen Democrats joined Rogers' effort, and many hail from districts with either a heavy defense industry presence or a high number of military residents.

The move is likely to further drive a wedge between centrist Democrats and progressives seeking to shrink the defense budget.

Two progressive Armed Services members, California Reps. Ro Khanna and Sara Jacobs, opposed the defense bill because the committee approved the additional spending. More are likely to follow.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a progressive who chairs a caucus dedicated to cutting the Pentagon budget, called the vote to increase the budget "unwarranted and unnecessary."

"This bloated budget is already significantly more than what the President requested, and I will not stand for it," Pocan said in a statement. "Increasing the Pentagon’s budget to help pay for the second homes of defense contractors is not the way to solve America’s most pressing security threats."

The draft: Despite a healthy budget hike, conservatives may be rankled by Democratic proposals added to the bill, chief among them a new requirement that women register for the draft.

Armed Services adopted Rep. Chrissy Houlahan’s (D-Pa.) measure to broaden the Selective Service System beyond just men in a bipartisan 35-24 vote.

No Republicans voted against the bill in committee, but some conservative lawmakers and groups have furiously opposed including women in a potential military draft and could oppose the legislation over the change.

The effort has also drawn opposition from progressive and anti-war advocates, who contend the Selective Service should be abolished rather than expanded to women.

"Far from advancing equity, this move expands the harms of the Selective Service to women without proper Congressional or public debate," Mac Hamilton, advocacy director for Women’s Action for New Directions, said in a statement. "All roles in the U.S. military are open to both men and women who choose to pursue them and we continue to oppose any effort to impose military service on men or women."

The overhaul has already been approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee. If the provision passes both chambers, it is likely to become law in a final compromise defense bill.

Extremism: Conservative Republicans have also dinged Pentagon efforts to boost diversity and root out extremism in the ranks as a “woke” effort to police troops’ political beliefs.

Despite GOP opposition, Armed Services advanced the effort Wednesday, approving in a 31-28 vote Rep. Anthony Brown’s (D-Md.) proposal to establish a Pentagon Office of Countering Extremism. His proposal also would clear the way for troops to be pushed out of the service if they engage in extremist activities or join radical groups. Still, the definition of what qualifies as extremism would be left to the defense secretary.

Democrats, meanwhile, turned back an effort from Hartzler to block funding for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s anti-extremism working group until the Pentagon chief provides lawmakers with a definition of what qualifies as extremism.

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