House NDAA Passes Chamber Along Party Lines

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) meets with journalists at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C., on June 10, 2019. Photo courtesy of GW's Project for Media and National Security.

The House passed its version of the 2020 defense policy bill in a 220-197 party-line vote July 12, signaling that, at least this year, the bipartisan goodwill that typically accompanies the chamber’s annual National Defense Authorization Act is gone.

No Republicans voted for the bill in the Democrat-controlled House, which now heads to the GOP-dominated Senate, where a conference committee will try to piece together a version that both chambers support.

The vote’s nearly even split is unusual. Lawmakers in the lower chamber typically pride themselves on their ability to set aside differences and pass a bipartisan bill even as party turmoil churns in other committees. For example, last year’s House bill passed in a 351-66 vote, and the 2018 House bill passed 344-81.

“220 votes is [the] lowest NDAA vote possibly ever,” American Enterprise Institute defense researcher Rick Berger said on Twitter. “Definitely since 1973, which is as far back as I’ve counted. Nothing below 250 votes except [fiscal 1988], which garnered 239. Not a good precedent for oversight of the armed forces.”

Differences over whether to pursue a topline of $733 billion (compared to the $750 billion topline Republicans want), block new low-yield nuclear weapons the Trump administration says are needed to counter Russia, and others spurred the rift. Though the bill does include more broadly supported provisions, like a pay raise for troops, creation of a Space Corps, and continued funding for key procurement and modernization priorities, those didn’t win over lawmakers who found its core and high-profile pieces unpalatable.

“This bill makes our country less safe, and I could not support it,” said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), ranking member on HASC’s strategic forces subcommittee.. “This bill undermines our national security, weakens our defenses, and emboldens our adversaries to challenge us. This bill is so extreme it will never become law. I am disheartened by this staggering break in our tradition of bipartisanship on defense.”

HASC Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he is optimistic the conference committee can find bipartisan solutions where the House did not.

“This bill underpins a smart defense posture with a tough stance on Russia and continued collaboration with allies, eliminates wasteful spending, promotes a more inclusive military by reinforcing the values of diversity, STEM and integration, and solidifies Congress’ oversight role of defense programs and the authorization to use military force,” Smith said. “Because of these and other critical provisions, it was of the utmost importance to our national defense that we pass the NDAA—and we did.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) hopes to produce a final bill by the end of September, according to a committee spokeswoman.