House Democrats see their defense experts tossed aside
WASHINGTON — The Republican takeover of the House on Tuesday was largely led by voters’ unhappiness over the economy, but Democrats in the chamber saw major losses in their defense voices as a result.
At least 10 Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee were ousted, including Chairman Ike Skelton, a fixture in the chamber for 33 years.
Their less-experienced replacements will be left to fight against the defense priorities of a Republican majority: an increase in military spending, more emphasis on missile defense, changes to the planned Afghanistan withdrawal timelines, and scuttling plans to close prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay.
The change in power also means that if a “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal isn’t passed this year, it likely won’t find any real legislative support in the House next year.
California Rep. Buck McKeon, in line to take over as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that Republicans in both the House and Senate chambers are “committed to passing a [bill] that is not weighed down by the current majority’s social agenda items.” And Iraq veteran Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, the Democrats’ leading advocate for repealing the ban on gays serving openly, lost his re-election race, much to the dismay of House Democrats and gay rights groups.
Skelton, a 78-year-old conservative Democrat from Missouri, had opposed his party’s efforts to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” this spring and worked with Republicans on a number of defense spending reform efforts in recent years.
But his opponent, Republican Vicky Hartzler, successfully cast his nondefense work as too liberal for his district, pointing to his support for President Barack Obama’s economic policies.
The elections also left Democrats on the committee without an apparent replacement for Skelton. Mississippi Rep. Gene Taylor, head of the seapower subcommittee, lost his re-election bid, and Arkansas Rep. Vic Snyder, head of the oversight subcommittee, did not run for re-election.
Readiness subcommittee Chairman Rep. Solomon Ortiz of Texas lost his race by about 800 votes, although a recount may be pending in that contest. At press time, Washington Rep. Adam Smith, head of the air and land forces subcommittee, was leading in his re-election bid.
Regardless of who takes over on the Democrat side, McKeon said he hopes to work in a bipartisan fashion with a focus on “a renewed emphasis on oversight” of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including “aggressive” questions on the missions overseas.
He also said he’d push for an increase in defense spending, even as his party looks to trim government spending. Reasonable increases in military budgets are critical to military modernization efforts and national security, he said.
Senate Democrats did not see the same kinds of losses among their defense leaders, but the narrower majority there may complicate passage of defense budget bills in the lame-duck session.
Republicans in the Senate blocked the annual defense authorization bill in September because it included a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was re-elected in Nevada, has promised another vote later this year but will need to find at least one Republican ally to move the legislation ahead. House Republicans would get another shot at that bill during reconciliation between the chambers.
At least seven Democrats on the House Veterans Affairs Committee also lost their re-election bids, and two more are retiring. Florida Republican Reps. Cliff Sterns and Jeff Miller are the most likely candidates to take over that chairmanship.