Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radar

A Deep Dive on the National Defense Authorization Bill

a 7-minute news roundup from the Press the Button podcast

This is a transcript of a recent Early Warning segment from the podcast Press the Button, in which Michelle Dover, Tom Collina, and Abigail Stowe-Thurston discuss the US House of Representatives' recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act. Listen and subscribe to our weekly podcast today! 

Early Warning segment, July 16, 2019

  • Michelle Dover, Director of Programs
  • Tom Collina, Director of Policy, Ploughshares Fund
  • Abigail Stowe-Thurston, Program Coordinator, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation

Michelle: On Friday the House of Representatives approved its Defense Authorization bill 220 to 197. No Republicans supported the typically bipartisan measure, and by typically bipartisan I mean over the past 58 years. Abigail, I read that one of the reasons the Republicans did not vote for it was actually related to language around certain nuclear weapons. What does the bill include, and what does that mean?

Abigail: So, the bill coming out of the House Armed Services Committee restricts funding to deploy the W76/2 nuclear warhead, and that’s a lower yield warhead that would be deployed on our D5 missiles and on our submarines. This is a weapon that was specifically requested in the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review and there has been a lot of debate over whether it is necessary, and whether it creates additional escalatory risks if we were in a conflict with Russia or something like that. So, the bill restricted funding for that weapon to be deployed. And in the House, on the floor, there was some debate over whether that restriction should be removed and there were some amendments that were offered to that effect. All of them were defeated with Democratic votes. So, the House bill, as it stands, won’t allow that weapon to be deployed.

Michelle: Got it. And I’m assuming that that language is not in the Senate version.

Abigail: No, the Senate version does not include that language, so that will be something to work out in conference.

Michelle: And Tom, follow-up question I had to that, how do you feel about the top-line of the House version? We’re looking at some of these really specific nuclear aspects, but this a part of a broader package and the trade-off we’re making for some of these controversial amendments is a higher total bill.

Tom: Right. To me, the House bill contains $733 billion for defense which to me is way too much. And in fact, this became a problem for the final passage of the bill, because some progressive Democrats thought it was too much as well and they didn’t want to vote for $733 billion for defense. And because they knew that all of the Republicans were probably going to vote against the bill, and in fact they did, there couldn’t be many Democratic defections from the bill or else the whole bill would not have passed. So, there was a real effort to work with progressive Democrats to allow them to offer amendments to the bill, some of which passed, some of which didn’t, but I think allowed them to feel better about the process and allowed them ultimately to vote for the bill. But I don’t think we should assume that the fact that the bill passed with that much defense spending means there is broad Democratic support for that level. I think they just felt, this is the best we can do, we got some good language in there, let’s see where it goes, but I think defense spending over-all is going to be an issue going forward.

Michelle: Got it. So, among these types of amendments, I believe you’ve been following some related to Congress’ authority to declare war?

Tom: So, I think one of the most significant amendments to come on to this bill was an amendment by Congressman Khanna, a bipartisan amendment to limit the President’s ability to engage in war with Iran. And so, this amendment passed with 27 Republican votes, which was one of the strongest shows of bipartisanship on this bill. And I think was a clear statement by the House that they do not support war with Iran and do not support Pres. Trump pursuing war with Iran, at least without Congressional approval. And there were a number of other elements in this bill that shows that Congress is really trying to reestablish its authority on war powers and declaration of war, I think as a clear statement of distrust or discomfort of what President Trump is doing.  Of course, we know not so long ago he was minutes away from launching military action against Iran, and has said that he feels he has authorities right now, to initiate war with Iran without asking Congress. So, a lot of discomfort with the President’s activities on the war front with Iran, and we’re seeing that in how the Democrats in the House, with Republican support, crafted this bill.

Michelle: So, we’re covered nuclear weapons, we’re covered Iran, was there anything related to North Korea in it as well?

Tom: Yes, indeed, another amendment, again by Congressman Khanna, to support ending the Korean War after 69 years and having that be an important part of efforts to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula. So, that was seen as part of a real effort on the part of Congress to say we want to solve this problem diplomatically, not militarily and that ending of the war there should be part of that dynamic.

Michelle: So, this was the House version. As I mentioned, the Senate has already passed their version. So, time to iron out the differences in conference. Abigail, what do you expect to see?

Abigail: So, it’s a little unclear what will happen next. As you mentioned, the two bills are substantially different, and we talked about some of those differences in the nuclear space. Rep. Adam Smith has been crystal clear that his top priority is to get a bill on the President’s desk for signature, and that will require some compromises. There are a number of things in the House version that Senate Republicans will unequivocally oppose, so there’s going to have to be some kind of negotiation there. That said, it’s not entirely clear what those compromises will be yet.

Michelle: Tom, do you have any predictions?

Tom: Well, we certainly hope that the Senate will uphold the prohibition on deployment of the low-yield warhead. This really comes down to what Sen. Jack Reed does as the Democratic leader on the House Armed Services Committee. We hope very much that he supports Adam Smith’s language from his bill to prohibit the deployment of low yield nuclear weapons and we’ll just have to see where it goes. We’re hopeful also that the prohibition on war with Iran without Congressional approval will also survive because last month, the Senate, a majority of the Senate, voted to also put limits on President’s authority. There was a 60-vote threshold, so that failed to pass, but it did have a majority of support. Of course, even if those things get through the conference, President Trump could still veto the bill, but again, this is going to be at least $733 billion for defense spending that Trump wants, and probably more once they compromise this process, so the hope is even if there are a few things in this bill that President Trump does not like, he will support the overall bill.


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Photo: Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radar / Air Force Space Command (public domain)