Thornberry sees potential for bipartisan unity on defense bill

By Tony Bertuca / June 29, 2020 at 11:17 AM

The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee said today he is optimistic that the panel's version of the fiscal year 2021 defense authorization bill will have the support of many House GOP members, unlike last year when none of them voted for it.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), the committee's ranking member, told reporters on a phone call he is seeing Republicans and Democrats "trying to work together, not being needlessly provocative."

"If that attitude holds through the full committee mark-up and the House floor, then we can get to conference," he said. "I think we're on that track and I hope we stay on that track."

Though liberal Democrats say they plan to offer amendments to significantly cut Pentagon spending and restrict the president's powers, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) has said he does not want the FY-21 bill to be slowed by partisan proposals, especially since Republicans hold the Senate and White House.

The previous defense authorization bill, for example, had Democratic provisions stripping money from nuclear weapons programs that proved especially divisive and were eventually removed in conference with the Senate. The bill last year also got bogged down by proposals to restrict President Trump's ability to wage war without congressional consent and unilaterally reprogram Pentagon money to build a wall on the southern border.

For now, the House panel's bill does not have any such provisions. But the full committee will meet Wednesday for a marathon mark-up hearing and new amendments will be offered, some of which could create partisan conflict.

For instance, a court recently ruled Trump's use of Pentagon funding to build the wall was illegal and the issue may crop up again when the defense authorization bill is debated.

Thornberry said the wall issue is unlikely to derail the bill, predicting the committee will be able to "navigate through" the matter.

"We may have a vote or two on this, but I do not think it will be an issue that holds up the whole bill," he said.

Thornberry said he planned to offer a few amendments of his own, including one related to disestablishing the Pentagon's chief management officer position. The Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the bill would eliminate the CMO, per the recommendation of the Defense Business Board.

"I have come to the conclusion based on the Defense Business Board study that that's the right thing to do," Thornberry said.

Thornberry said he is also concerned about Trump's decision to move thousands of U.S. troops out of Germany and may either offer or support and amendment attempting to restrict the president.

Alleged Russian ‘bounties’ questioned

Additionally, Thornberry said the committee wants to be briefed immediately by the White House regarding news reports that a Russian spy unit sought to pay "bounties" to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan for killing U.S. troops.

"When you're dealing with the lives of our servicemembers, especially in Afghanistan and especially these allegations there were bounties put on American deaths, then it is incredibly serious and we in Congress need to see the information and sources to judge that for ourselves," he said.

Smith released his own statement demanding information from the White House.

"The U.S. intelligence community reportedly informed the Trump administration of this assessment as early as late March," the chairman said. "Acting on this information could have saved lives. Yet, President Trump claims he had no prior knowledge of the bounties that Russia placed on American soldiers. That excuse only gives rise to more questions. Why didn't the president receive a briefing on such a highly sensitive subject? Was this information included in the Presidential Daily Briefing? If not, why not? Was this information shared with our military leaders?”