WASHINGTON — After huge election victories by Democrats in 2008, supporters thought they knew exactly what military changes to expect from their strong legislative majority:
- An end to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
- A repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.
- The closing of detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay.
- A real shift away from President George W. Bush’s military strategies.
But two years later, those same supporters are wondering whether Democrats are about to lose control of Congress without accomplishing any of those goals.
National polls indicate that Republicans are poised to take control of the House and possibly the Senate on election day, a stunning turnaround.
The stagnant economy and emergence of the tea party have not only jeopardized the Democrats’ majorities but also delayed many of their legislative goals. Now, Republicans are preparing to take the lead again in discussions of war strategy and defense priorities.
Experts say a power shift likely won’t affect troops’ pay and benefits, but servicemembers could see significant changes in spending priorities, personnel policies and the overall tenor of the military discussion on Capitol Hill.
Here’s what could change and won’t change for troops, even with a new balance of power in Congress:
Afghanistan and Iraq withdrawal
A Republican Congress won’t be able to send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan, or pull them out any quicker.
But, if Republicans control at least one chamber, they will be able to hold hearings on those kinds of troop moves, giving them a stronger public forum to second-guess President Barack Obama’s war strategy.
One Republican Capitol Hill staffer said GOP lawmakers are planning a series of hearings on Afghanistan leading up to Obama’s promised drawdown next July — sessions that would take a closer look at whether such a move could jeopardize troops’ safety and mission.
Republicans have questioned whether the withdrawal target is based more on political considerations than sound strategy, and repeated hearings on the issue could reinforce that assertion.
The staffer also said lawmakers expect a similar look at the mission in Iraq, with hearings on whether the U.S. should be pushing Iraqi officials to extend the U.S. presence there beyond the scheduled December 2011 withdrawal.
Don’t ask, don’t tell
Just a few months ago, Democrats appeared poised to repeal the controversial 17-year-old ban on openly gay troops. Now, it could be years before the law faces a serious repeal threat in the legislature.
In May, the House, largely along party lines, approved language repealing the law. A similar push failed in the Senate in September, although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised to revisit the issue in this year’s lame-duck session.
Gay rights groups are hopeful that means that the law can still be repealed before the next Congress is seated.
“The good news is that there is still a path to get this done this year,” Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said in a video message released last week. “It’s a narrow path, it’s a delicate path. But don’t let anyone tell you that the path does not exist, because it certainly does.”
Alexander said persuasive action must come first from Reid and then from Obama, but he also urged action from moderate Republicans senators such as Susan Collins of Maine and Richard Lugar of Indiana.
But Senate Republicans, who successfully scuttled the repeal once, will have little reason to revisit the issue if they see their numbers improve on election night.
Even if it does pass the Senate, the budget bill that contains the law’s repeal will have to be approved again by the House before it can become law. House Republicans have said they’ll push for a temporary budget until the start of the new Congress next year, creating another hurdle for a repeal.
Obama could include a “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal in his budget proposals next year. But repeal advocates admit that if Congress can’t pass the bill with liberal supporters in control of both chambers, the legislative branch likely won’t pass a repeal with conservatives in control.
Defense spending cuts
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made reining in defense spending his top target in recent years, outlining cuts to major weapons systems, acquisition costs and even department personnel.
While some Democrats have been openly resistant to those moves, experts said Republicans will likely be even more difficult to win over.
“If Republicans take over the House, I’m certainly less worried about major defense spending cuts,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, research fellow for national security studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “We’ll still see efforts to rein in wasteful spending, but they’ll want to reinvest some of those savings back into other defense programs.”
House Republicans have pushed in recent years to tie the Pentagon budget to a percentage of America’s gross domestic product, to ensure national security funding keeps pace with the country’s other spending priorities. On the other hand, “nobody is sure where the tea party candidates will be on defense,” said Daniel Wirls, author of several books on the politics of defense spending. “They’re talking about cutting government spending, but they’ve been largely silent on defense.” That could mean new allies or new headaches for Gates.
Missile defense programs have been a favorite of GOP lawmakers in recent years, but funding for those programs has dropped under Obama.
Republican Congressmen have consistently pushed for more money to pay for development and deployment of those systems. Republicans in both chambers have offered little support for Obama’s stalled plans to close detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, so a power switch could delay those moves for years.
Perhaps the most significant change for active-duty troops if a Republican takeover occurs will be the new faces representing them in Congress. The GOP is fielding 15 House candidates with military experience in Iraq or Afghanistan, with at least half in close races in competitive districts.
Currently only four House members — two Republicans, two Democrats — boast any on-the-ground experience in the wars, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is the only Senator to have served in the conflicts.
Kieran Lalor, founder of the conservative political action committee Iraq Vets for Congress, said he believes the House could see up to 10 Republican members with ties to Iraq and Afghanistan, which would add more personal insight to lawmakers’ debates on war strategies.