WASHINGTON — This week President Trump vetoed three bipartisan measures intended to block the sale of $8 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But Congress has one last best chance to assert itself over Trump’s often erratic foreign policy in the Middle East: the National Defense Authorization bill.
The measure is seen as a must-pass, and both chambers have already passed conflicting measures. Now they must combine the two. The House package is $733 billion, and the Senate’s is $750 billion, which is in line with what Trump has requested. So there’s plenty of negotiating room, if Democrats play hardball.
In order to get anti-war Democrats to sign off, House party leaders agreed to give progressives votes on measures to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia and ban the administration from starting a war with Iran without the approval of Congress, and another one that ends the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. All passed, and in the end, only eight Democrats joined every Republican in voting against the bill.
Now the anti-war provisions are vital to maintain Democratic support for the final version.
“They’re important because they’re in the context of an administration that is not taking authorization of Congress for military force in other parts of the world and that’s true in Yemen, it’s true in Iran, it’s true in Venezuela,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, told VICE News at the Capitol. “There’s a lot of places where Congress is just being left out by a lawless administration, so I think that’s a lot of the context particularly for limiting the use of military force in other parts of the world.”
But Trump and his allies in the GOP-controlled Senate are also girding for battle.
“If they put something like that in there, it’s a poison pill for the bill,” Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told VICE News. “It’s that simple.”
“This is the single and best vehicle to prevent another Middle East war.”
It’s unlikely that House Democrats will be able to get all three of those measures to tie Trump’s hands included in the final bill, so now lawmakers are debating which one — or ones — they think have the best chance of garnering a presidential signature.
“I think the Iran one is very important, because if the leadership can say this is the single and best vehicle to prevent another Middle East war it becomes a very compelling case to vote for the NDAA,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the author of the Iran measure, told VICE News just off the House floor.
And Khanna’s amendment got support from 27 Republicans, which Khanna says is important as they go into negotiations with the Senate.
“It reminds the president that the American people, both Democrats and Republicans, don’t want another war in the Middle East,” Khanna said. “The president was fully aware of this. This is what he said when he campaigned, and he’s probably going to want to say it again when he campaigns again.”
The Iran measure garnered 50 votes in the Senate, but it required 60 votes to be included in their final package. Still, getting half of the upper chamber on board was significant.
“I think we have a good NDAA bill here,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), adding that adding the Iran and Saudi issues are a good way for Congress to regain “leverage with the president.”
Many of this year’s freshmen lawmakers in the House served in the military and don’t want to cave in to the Senate version of the bill.
“I want to make sure that when we go into conference for the National Defense Authorization Act, that it’s not the Senate bill or nothing because quite frankly, I think we have a better bill,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), a former Navy helicopter pilot. “We’ve been very thoughtful about how we move forward in the new national defense strategy, how we move forward with a resurgent Russia, how we move forward with China’s growing power.”
And with the NDAA as possibly the last best chance to tie Trump’s hands on foreign adventures, rank and file Democrats are going into these negotiations being more vocal with their demands then they were in the border debate.
“Nothing can reach the president’s desk without the House Democrats supporting it,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told VICE News in the basement of the Capitol. “But again, on this issue I think it’s, I want to get something passed, but I also think it’s the debate and the protests that’s as important.”
Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the first anniversary of the administration's Pledge to The American Worker initiative at the White House in Washington, DC, on July 25, 2019. (Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)