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House defense bill highlights partisan divide over Iran, border wall, Guantanamo

By KAROUN DEMIRJIAN | The Washington Post | Published: June 13, 2019

WASHINGTON — House Democrats steered the first defense bill they have controlled in almost a decade through its final committee test without incident early Thursday, but the fights that broke out along the way presage steep partisan hurdles for negotiations with the GOP-led Senate.

The House Armed Services Committee voted 33 to 24 to advance its $733 billion plan to the full House — a marked departure from previous years, when lawmakers have squabbled over provisions, but ultimately joined hands across party lines to endorse their final product.

Republicans voted against the measure after a 21-hour working session — which featured, but did not settle, a heated debate over the prospect of conflict with Iran. Early Thursday, after huddling outside the committee room to discuss their strategy, almost all GOP members present voted no. Only Reps. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., and Don Bacon, R-Neb., sided with the Democrats to support the bill.

"I hope that this bill improves from everybody's standpoint as it moves through the process. And I'll leave it there," the committee's ranking member, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said just before the final vote.

The parties split over several provisions related to funding construction at the southern border, investing in nuclear weapons and allowing for the transfer detainees from the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Republicans failed to increase the bill's authorization from $733 billion to $750 billion, the size of companion legislation approved last month by the Senate Armed Services Committee. They also attempted unsuccessfully to strip bans on using or moving federal funds for border wall construction.

Democrats blocked efforts to insert provisions seeking to expand investment in and deployment of nuclear weapons, including one amendment to allow low-yield nuclear weapons on submarines.

The Senate's bill does permit deployment of the low-yield nukes on submarines and authorizes replenishing some of the money President Donald Trump siphoned from military construction projects to pay for the border wall.

Republicans sought unsuccessfully to bar Guantanamo detainees from being transferred into the United States and to add certain Central American countries to the list of locations where accused terrorists may not be relocated. But the legislation is silent on other foreign policy fights, such as the president's recent emergency declaration to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over congressional objections, or Democrats' fears that Trump's escalating standoff with Iran may result in war.

Panel chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., defused a particularly explosive debate over an amendment insisting the president approach Congress for authorization before going to war with Iran. Smith promised to revisit the matter on the House floor. But the exchange revealed the level of frustration between Republicans and Democrats over many of the bill's policy provisions.

"I never thought I would ever say thank God for the Senate, but thank God for the Senate, 'cause there is so much in this bill that is just so horrifically written that is never going to become law," Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, said during the debate.

Neither the full Senate nor the full House have voted on their versions of the defense bill, which must be fused before each chamber can vote on the final product. What authorized funds ultimately reach the Pentagon also are subject to the appropriations process, where budgeting is still subject to limitations.

But one major potential hurdle to that reconciliation process was mostly avoided during the House Armed Services Committee's meeting: lawmakers on the panel approved the addition of a U.S. Space Corps, to be housed within the Air Force. While details of its organization and leadership differ from the Senate's proposal, inclusion of the provision creates room for compromise.

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