By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — Time and again, the US House last week considered amendments to a Pentagon spending bill. And each time, unlikely coalitions of Republicans and Democrats voted to divert funds from Afghanistan projects, slash war spending — and nearly kill a controversial anti-terrorism program.
An examination of vote records reveals a pattern that exposes fissures in what Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter dubbed Capitol Hill’s “solid center” that since 9/11 “always” supported defense issues.
Time and again, members of this once-solid pro-defense voting bloc rejected spending hundreds of billions of dollars on new Afghanistan infrastructure projects and even on the country’s security forces, which White House and Pentagon officials say is the key to keeping out the Taliban and al-Qaida after US troops leave.
Time and again, once pro-defense members joined other Republicans and Democrats to form a deficit-slashing voting bloc that reflects the priorities of many Americans and an increasing number of their representatives.
And time and again, members like Reps. Loretta Sanchez, Jim Moran, Walter Jones, Mike Coffman and John Garamendi voted with the increasingly powerful deficit-hawk bloc.
Sanchez, D-Calif., is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC’s) Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee. Moran, D-Va., is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee (HAC-D) who hails from a state with a robust national security presence. All are considered pro-defense.
“All of this comes down to money,” said Christopher Preble, a national security analyst at the Cato Institute. “The question more [lawmakers] are asking is, ‘Just where are you going to find that money?’”
Six adopted amendments that diverted funds from Afghanistan projects or forces received 823 GOP votes and 897 Democratic votes, a stunning bipartisan statement about America’s involvement there beyond 2014 for a chamber known more recently for partisan brawls.
In another telling vote, Jones, R-N.C., Coffman, R-Colo., and Garamendi, D-Calif., were joined by some of the House’s most senior pro-defense members in pushing through an amendment that would, if enacted, slash war spending.
HASC Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., senior HASC member Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., and several other Democratic HASC members voted for the measure.
The amendment, offered by the kind of collection of tea party Republicans and liberal Democrats the defense sector has come to fear, reduced the House Appropriations Committee’s Overseas Contingency Operations funding level by $3.5 billion. The panel’s war-funding amount topped $85 billion.
The bipartisan amendment passed 215-206. Without the support of the HASC and HAC-D members, however, it would have failed.
The message from Republicans and Democrats on spending much more in Afghanistan was clear: Those dollars should be devoted to repairing America’s economic situation, not roads in Afghanistan.
Some analysts, however, question whether unspent funds can be applied to reducing an existing federal deficit.
“The number of Republicans that are willing to take the position that … we should raise taxes to keep military spending at current levels is dwindling,” Preble said.
Last week’s voting record shows the change is bipartisan, eroding what Carter described at the recent Aspen Security Summit as “a solid center of opinion that supported defense that you could count on.”
There are a number of reasons for the change, Carter said, noting a leading one is that “time has passed since 9/11.”
Another is war fatigue.
“People are tired of the two wars. They’re tired of Afghanistan. They’re tired of Iraq,” Carter said. “They’re tired of it.”
In the crescendo of the two-day floor debate over the appropriations bill, many of the same lawmakers shunned their pro-defense and national security credentials.
During a nonpartisan July 24 floor debate on an amendment that would have defunded controversial surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA), Republicans clashed with Republicans, further exposing a divide that began in 2010 between the parties’ tea party privacy hawks and the old-school national security hawks.
Democrats joined the GOP privacy hawks, and the chamber narrowly rejected the amendment, with 217 members voting no and 205 in favor. Among the bloc were pro-defense members like Sanchez, Moran, Jones, Coffman, Garamendi, as well as a Republican HASC member, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, and three Appropriations Defense subcommittee members: Reps. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Bill Owens, D-N.Y.
Experts say the 205-member bipartisan coalition, comprising 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats, signals a shift on Capitol Hill from the post-9/11 era of policy and budgetary carte blanche for the Pentagon and other security agencies.
“While ultimately not successful, this vote showed that more than 200 members of Congress — including the author of the Patriot Act — oppose these programs,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a civil liberties organization. These programs barely survived after a full-court lobbying campaign by the White House, the intelligence community and the NSA proper.
“Today’s vote shows that the tide is turning,” Segal said in a warning to the defense sector. “The expiration date on these programs is coming due.”