Smith says border wall still holding up 2020 NDAA, “skinny” bill a nonstarter

Time is running out for Congress to finish the 2020 defense authorization bill.

The top lawmaker on the House Armed Services Committee said he is committed to finish a full defense authorization bill for 2020, and that the idea of a “skinny” version of the bill is a nonstarter.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said the House and Senate made significant progress on the 2020 defense authorization bill, but there are still contentious issues holding up the bill.

The biggest issue keeping the bill — which is in conference rectifying differences between the House and Senate version — from passage is using military funding for a wall along the southern border.

“The White House wants $8.4 billion for the wall — $3.6 billion to backfill last year and then another $4.8 billion,” Smith told reporters Wednesday in Washington.

The Trump administration took $3.6 billion from the Defense Department’s military construction and drug interdiction budgets in fiscal 2019 after declaring the southern border a national emergency. The decision received criticism from both Democrats and Republicans and left DoD without funds it expected.

Smith said the defense authorization bill needs to address the wall issue in some way or the Trump administration can continue to use the military construction and drug interdiction budgets as a “piggy bank.”

Smith said the Democrats do not want to fund the wall in any way, but the fight over funding should be hashed out in the appropriations process, not in the authorization bill.

The wall isn’t the only sticky topic for Congress on the NDAA. Smith added the Space Force to the list of provisions lawmakers have not pinned down just yet.

“The thing about the Space Force is it was an odd little coalition. The Senate was adamantly opposed to it for three years,” Smith said. “There are still a lot of people in the House and in the Senate who are worried about it and the specifics of how it gets implemented – how much money does it cost? How much more bureaucracy does it put in place? These are all things that need to be negotiated. There is a bipartisan concern on the proposal and bicameral concern on the specifics of that proposal.”

Another issue keeping the bill from passage is allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military. Transgender people were allowed to serve openly in the military until President Donald Trump announced over Twitter that he was banning them from serving. Since then, the military formed policy that put them back into the shadows.

The House version of the bill would reverse the ban, but the Senate version would not.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced a “skinny” NDAA in October as a means to get some policy into law. The bill provides for a military pay raise, bonuses and the procurement of F-35s. It does not have a provision creating a Space Force, does not restrict the use of toxic firefighting chemicals that are making service members sick, and does not require comprehensive reform for privatized military housing.

Smith said the House would not support the skinny bill because of what it leaves out.

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