Forming the Nuclear Arm of Babylon the Great

Democrats next year will control the gavels for the defense and foreign policy committees in the House for the first time since 2010.

The party has been itching to check on a host of issues, from his relationship with Saudi Arabia to the ballooning defense budget.

But to get legislation through Congress, House Democrats will need to work with the Senate, which is still in Republican hands. And the chairmen poised to lead the defense and foreign policy panels in the upper chamber are seen as staunch Trump allies.

Here are the top foreign policy and defense fights to watch in a divided Congress:

U.S.-Saudi relations

Lawmakers in both parties have been eyeing ways to punish Saudi Arabia over the killing of U.S.-based journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi.

House Democrats have said responses should include an end to U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in neighboring Yemen’s civil war. Democratic lawmakers were already opposed to U.S. backing because of civilian casualties, but Khashoggi’s murder has given the issue new urgency.

Rep. Adam SmithDavid (D-Wash.), who’s poised to be chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Eliot (D-N.Y.), in line to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are among the top Democrats who have signed on to a bill that would end military support for Saudi Arabia.

But Republicans have said the Yemen civil war and Khashoggi killing are two separate matters. Continuing support in the civil war, they argue, is imperative to countering Iran, which supports the rebels in Yemen.

GOP senators have talked about sanctions as a possible response. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who is expected to take over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), signed on to a committee letter last month triggering a sanctions determination by the administration.

But Risch is a Trump loyalist who is seen as much more likely to be deferential to the president than Corker. Trump, who has fostered a close relationship with the Saudis as central to his Middle East strategy, has waffled on how to respond to the Khashoggi killing.

On Tuesday, Trump said he’d have a “stronger opinion on that subject over the next week.”

Space Force

The Trump administration has said it wants the establishment of a “Space Force” included in next year’s defense policy bill. That position has contributed to increasingly diverging opinions between House and Senate lawmakers.

Republicans in the Senate — who were initially skeptical of creating a separate branch of the military for space — have appeared more open to the idea since Trump got involved.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a Trump ally who will keep the gavel in the next Congress, has said he has an open mind but is awaiting more cost details.

The Senate may lose one of its most vocal Space Force critics, albeit on the Democratic side. Sen. Bill Nelson(D-Fla.), who led the chamber’s opposition to a similar plan from the House last year, is fighting for his political life in a reelection race that appears headed toward a recount.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the House have grown more entrenched in their opposition to Space Force ever since Trump injected himself into the debate.

Smith, who supported the House’s space corps plan last year, came out against Space Force in September. He said that while he believes the military needs to do a better job of prioritizing its presence in space, a separate branch is not the most cost-effective way to do so.

Space Force still has some key Democratic support in the House. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who worked alongside Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) to lead the chamber’s space corps push, said in September that he hopes Trump’s involvement doesn’t “ruin the debate” about it.

Defense budget

Smith has said this year’s defense budget of $716 billion is “too high,” and in a Thursday letter announcing his run for chairman he vowed to target “inefficiency and waste” at the Pentagon.

The Washington Democrat has argued that lawmakers need to start making tough choices about spending and taxing as rising deficits have been compounded by the GOP’s 2017 tax-cut law.

Defense hawks and the Pentagon pushed for the $716 billion to help address what they characterized as an urgent readiness crisis. Few Democrats argue that the military is not facing readiness issues, but Smith has said the military needs to be “smart” about how it spends its money. He has cited the Navy’s 355-ship goal, saying the focus on a number is flawed logic because “capability matters.”

Senate Republicans argue that defense cuts would reverse any readiness progress that’s been achieved. They say the budget needs to continue the growth trend from the past two years in order to fully emerge from the readiness hole.

Asked by The Hill in October about the potential House-Senate split and the looming return of budget caps, Inhofe expressed confidence that the defense budget would at least stay flat.

“We have to catch up,” Inhofe said. “We have to keep that up, or all that we have done in catching up in those last two fiscal years will go out the window. So that’s not just going to happen.”

But in this case, Democrats may actually have an ally in Trump, who recently ordered his administration to propose a $700 billion defense budget for fiscal year 2020 — a $16 billion cut from this year and $33 billion less than the initial plan for 2020.

Nuclear weapons

One of Smith’s longtime concerns has been the U.S. nuclear arsenal. He opposed the Obama administration’s modernization plans, arguing they weren’t affordable.

With the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review calling for new capabilities, Smith has stepped up his criticism, vowing to scrutinize the nuclear budget to look for savings in the overall defense budget.

In his Thursday letter, Smith said Democrats must “take substantial steps to reduce America’s overreliance on nuclear weapons.”

Adding to Democrats’ nuclear anxiety is Trump’s intention to withdraw from a Cold War-era arms accord with Russia known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Smith and Engel wrote a letter to the administration last month warning they “will neither support, nor enable, a precipitous course of action that increases the risk of an unconstrained nuclear arms race.”

Congress is limited in its power to prevent Trump from withdrawing from the treaty, but it could block funding for any new missiles that would be out of compliance with the accord.

Inhofe backed the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review and is unlikely to support reduced funding for weapons in the defense policy bill. Risch, meanwhile, issued a statement of support after Trump announced withdrawal from the INF Treaty, saying “the time has come to set the treaty aside.”

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