House Passes $733 Billion Defense Bill Checking Trump’s War Powers

 ·  Catie Edmondson, New York Times   ·   Link to Article

WASHINGTON — The House gave final approval Friday to a defense bill that would put a liberal stamp on military policy by shackling President Trump’s ability to wage war in Iran and Yemen, restricting the use of military funds at the southwestern border and returning transgender troops to the armed forces.

The $733 billion National Defense Authorization Act was passed along stark party lines — 220 to 197 — with Republicans uniting to oppose the legislation. The defense policy bill has traditionally been a bipartisan exercise, but House Republicans have come out strongly against this year’s version.

The bill still must be reconciled with a Senate version that is considerably less confrontational with the Trump administration. And it is likely Senate negotiators will try to strip out many of the House’s provisions.

In amendment after amendment, lawmakers flexed their oversight muscles, reflecting a growing desire to take back long-ceded authority over matters of war and peace from the executive branch, a reclamation that legislators in both parties contend has grown more urgent amid escalating tensions with Iran.

Passage of the measure with support from liberal Democrats — and no Republicans — could set up another difficult showdown between Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and her left flank. Negotiations with the Senate will almost certainly result in a compromise measure that jettisons many, if not most, of the amendments secured by House liberals. That could set up a final vote that liberals will oppose, leaving Democratic leaders to appeal for Republican votes.

For now, though, the House bill bears the stamp of the resurgent left. The House passed a bipartisan amendment on Friday that would curb Mr. Trump’s ability to authorize a military strike on Iran unless he obtained Congress’s explicit approval. The 251-to-170 vote reflected general war weariness after almost two decades of conflict in the Middle East; 27 Republicans joined all but seven Democrats to approve it.

Last month, Mr. Trump led the United States to the brink of a retaliatory missile strike before abruptly reversing course minutes before launch. On Thursday, three Iranian boats briefly tried to block passage of a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, according to Britain’s Ministry of Defense.

Mr. Trump said last month he believes he does not need congressional approval to strike Iran. The vote on Friday amounted to a pointed bipartisan rebuttal — led by Representatives Ro Khanna, a liberal Democrat from California, and Matt Gaetz of Florida, one of Mr. Trump’s most strident Republican allies in Congress.

“If my war-hungry colleagues, some of whom have already suggested we invade Venezuela and North Korea and probably a few other countries before lunchtime tomorrow, if they’re so certain of their case against Iran,” Mr. Gaetz said, “let them bring their authorization to use military force against Iran to this very floor. Let them make the case to Congress and the American people.”

Mr. Khanna called the vote “a clear statement from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that this country is tired of endless wars, that we do not want another war in the Middle East.”

The amendment would not restrict the president’s ability to respond to an attack. But Mr. Gaetz’s entreaty failed to persuade the majority of his conference, who castigated the notion of limiting the president’s military options against an antagonistic nation. Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, called the measure “a propaganda win for the Iranian regime and the Houthi allies.”

“The administration’s measured response to Iran’s shoot down of our U.S. military asset in international airspace shows the president is not looking for a war with Iran,” Mr. McCaul said, referring to the downing of an American drone.

Still, the amendment brought together the oddest of coalitions in Washington, with Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative advocacy group, and VoteVets, the liberal political action committee, joining forces to support the measure. Other lobbying groups — including FreedomWorks, the Tea Party advocacy group, and Indivisible, a liberal anti-Trump group — urged members to support the bill.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, tried to attach a similar measure to the Senate’s version of the defense policy bill last month, butthe amendment failed 50 to 40.

Mr. Khanna and Mr. Gaetz also led a successful effort to continue Congress’s monthslong effort to intervene in the Yemen conflict and punish Saudi Arabia for the killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Lawmakers voted Thursday to prohibit the administration from using funds to support the Saudi-led military operations — either with munitions or with intelligence — against the Houthis in Yemen, a conflict that has killed thousands of civilians and resulted in a famine that the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Mr. Trump vetoed legislation in April that invoked the War Powers Act to cut off American military support to the campaign.

Another amendment, also passed Thursday, would prevent the Trump administration from using emergency authority to transfer munitions to the kingdom.

Progressives who initially wavered on whether they would support the defensive bill were encouraged by those provisions, as well as by an amendment that would reinstate transgender people to military service, reversing Mr. Trump’s ban. Another would phase out the authorization of military force passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which has been used since then to justify military actions around the world.

Those provisions were enough to provoke the ire of House Republicans. But the main objection of Republicans to the defense bill was that it does not allocate enough money to the Defense Department. The legislation authorizes $733 billion in military spending — and includes a 3 percent pay increase for troops — while the Senate version allocates $750 billion, meeting the figure the White House requested.

A series of bipartisan amendments led by Republicans did pass the House, including a measure from Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin that would require the Commerce Department to keep Huawei, the Chinese telecom company, on its blacklist until it can certify the company does not pose a threat to the United States’ telecommunications and infrastructure. Mr. Trump had recently promised to ease the ban for the company, despite concerns that the company could pose a threat to national security.

Lawmakers also roundly defeated twin amendments from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, that would have prevented the president from deploying troops to the Mexican border to enforce immigration law and would have barred the Defense Department from housing migrants at its centers.

But taken as a whole, there were too many “problematic” provisions in the policy bill for Republicans to support, said Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

“It’s shameful. They’re failing fundamentally to uphold our constitutional duty, and they’re failing in the most important thing we do, which is be worthy of the sacrifice of those men and women who put on the uniform and go to protect all of us,” said Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican. “When Congress politicizes the National Defense Authorization Act, we are not worthy of the men and women who are defending us on the front lines today.”

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