Thornberry: Georgia Senate Runoffs Could Derail Bipartisan NDAA

The drama of the twin Georgia Senate runoff elections looming in January could seep into negotiations over the 2021 defense policy bill, a key GOP lawmaker warned Nov. 17.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who is retiring this term as ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, is one of the “Big Four” lawmakers tasked with cobbling together a compromise on defense issues from nuclear weapons development to troop deployments. But a gridlocked Congress has been slow to advance its policy and spending bills during a heated election season that will now stretch two months longer.

Two runoff races—one between Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock, the other between Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff—will take place in January because no candidate earned more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 3.

The winners of each seat will determine which party controls the Senate, which stands at 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats after the Election Day results. If both Democrats win, the Senate would be tied 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the Democratic tiebreaker. If one or both Republicans win, the GOP would remain in the majority.

The top Republican and Democrat on both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees are in the opening steps of negotiating a final National Defense Authorization Act against that political backdrop. The results could spur members to dig in and protect their own priorities, jeopardizing agreement on the largely bipartisan bill.

“I am concerned that there is at least the potential that political concerns, especially with the Georgia runoffs, are going to play a bigger role than what’s good for the men and women of the military, and all of the good in this bill,” Thornberry told reporters at a Heritage Foundation event.

One politically charged sticking point is the proposal to rename military installations that honor Confederate icons, such as Fort Bragg, N.C. Thornberry hopes that disagreements over whether and how quickly to do so won’t derail other bipartisan language in the final bill.

Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Thornberry have informally met to smooth the way forward for still-unnamed conferees who will settle on a final NDAA.

Thornberry indicated committee leadership is mulling which pieces of the House and Senate bills make sense to keep, regardless of which party holds the White House. That includes provisions that would downsize the Trump administration’s plans for troop changes in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“I think it makes sense for us to take into account what the results of the recent election have been, and that’s true on a host of issues,” Thornberry said. “There is bipartisan support and interest to make sure we do not precipitously withdraw, undercut our mission, not only in Afghanistan, but in other places.”

Lawmakers have just a few weeks left to meet their self-imposed deadline of having a bill ready for floor votes in early December. Conferees plan to meet Nov. 18 to begin discussing the path forward.

Thornberry warned that if the NDAA is not signed into law before the next Congress and the Biden administration begin in January, the new group of politicians could hit reset.

“I think it’s much safer to say that if we don’t get the NDAA done before the end of December, and signed into law before the end of December, that all of those provisions just die and the new Congress would have to start from scratch,” he said.

The later in 2021 it gets, the more that lawmakers will be faced with the decision of finishing the bill at hand or starting instead on the 2022 legislation, he said.

But the outgoing ranking member appears optimistic they can reach the finish line before the end of the year.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” he said of the “Big Four” meetings. “There is a very good chance we will be able to resolve, essentially, all of the conference issues.”