- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2019

Republican lawmakers are deeply divided over how strongly to oppose President Trump’s abrupt troop drawdown in Syria as Congress returns from its break this week and a Democratic push for impeachment threatens to overwhelm an agenda of defense and national security legislation before the end of the year.

Momentum appeared to be growing for a rare bipartisan rebuke of Mr. Trump’s drawdown, which critics say could undercut U.S. influence in the region, provide an opening for Islamic State to rebuild and leave America’s Kurdish allies exposed to a mounting Turkish invasion.

Lawmakers already were facing a crunch to deal with unpassed defense appropriations bills, as well as reconciling the clashing House and Senate versions of the mammoth 2020 defense authorization bill. The distraction of an impeachment fight isn’t helping.

“With the impeachment and the Syria issue, I think Republicans are less interested in protecting the president than they were a few months ago,” Rep. John Garamendi, California Democrat, said in an interview.

The Kurds have a number of strong advocates on Capitol Hill and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are a key American ally in the fight against the Islamic State.

Mr. Garamendi, who chairs the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee, said the situation “is a very profoundly troubling situation.”

The pushback to Mr. Trump’s move has opened the door to adding sanctions on Turkey to the 2020 defense policy bill for the attacks, which have caused thousands of civilians in the area to flee.

Mr. Trump on Friday threatened to impose “very significant” sanctions on Ankara over the Turkish military’s bombardment of Kurds in northeast Syria, but the penalties have yet to be enforced.

Mr. Garamendi is sponsoring an amendment that prohibits the sale of F-35 aircraft to Ankara while Turkey remains in possession of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, and he has received bipartisan support.

Lawmakers are returning to Washington after a two-week fall break and are racing to pass the massive defense policy bill, which missed a major deadline at the beginning of the month.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation, said that while the impeachment inquiry may not derail negotiations, “it makes it harder for everybody else to come together.”

“Emotions are high. [There are] levels of toxicity, if you will, that would not normally have been there,” he said.

The annual National Defense Authorization Act sets spending levels and addresses a wide range of security policy issues. The Senate Republican majority and the Democrat-run House are far apart on a number of key issues.

With Mr. Trump having made both a priority, a spending hike for the military and funding for the Mexico border wall top the list.

Republicans in both chambers have been pushing for a $750 billion defense budget that is in line with former Defense Secretary James Mattis’ suggestion to increase the funds by 3% to 5% each year to maintain readiness.

Democrats, meanwhile, have argued that even the $738 billion for defense that was approved by both the House and Senate in July after the appropriations committees settled on the figure, is too much.

Both sides should expect to give a little, Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Times in July.

“I suspect what will ultimately happen it is … the number will be cut in half, and that will be the number — a classic compromise,” Mr. Garamendi said.

The border wall funding debate may not be as easy to finesse after Mr. Trump declared a national emergency and dipped into Pentagon funds earlier this year to underwrite construction work on his promised barrier.

House Democrats are “determined to severely limit the president’s authority to use an emergency declaration to appropriate money for his pet projects,” Mr. Garamendi said.

House Democrats say they are set on having “very strict language” in the National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit the administration from using defense funds to construct and maintain the border wall, and they may find some Republican sympathy.

Gen. Spoehr said the issue “might be something [Republicans] might be willing to kind of diverge on from the White House” because it is not a traditional branch of national defense.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper lamented again Friday the failure of Congress to pass a defense appropriations bill. He said it was hard for the Pentagon to make plans when dealing with a string of continuing funding resolutions.

But observers say the defense appropriations debate is at an impasse and may need senior leaders in both houses to have any hope of deal.

“The appropriations process has been on life support for some time since it became obvious that the House was not coming off their insistence on limitations on the border wall,” Bill Greenwalt, longtime Senate Armed Services Committee staffer, told the online publication Breaking Defense.

The continuing resolution for defense, which Mr. Trump signed last month, expires Nov. 21.

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