The defense authorization bill is typically one of the few pieces of legislation immune from political grandstanding. Members of both parties recognize that there are better places to pick a political fight than a bill that funds our troops. As Fawn Johnson writes for National Journal:
The bill is widely considered one of the most important pieces of business for Congress each year. It is generally written on a bipartisan basis, and it contains hundreds of provisions to assist the military in its various operations. This year’s bill includes a pay raise for the troops and a long-awaited 401(k) program for service members who serve fewer than 20 years—that is, most of them.
Voting “no” is politically dangerous, opening lawmakers up to accusations that they don’t love America. Yet this is where the fight is heading for Democrats.
This year should have been no different. As Johnson notes, the bill gives President Obama “his exact budget request for the troops” and it is only proceeding “after several weeks of considering mostly noncontroversial amendments.” In other words, Republicans agree with the president on the funding level and gave Democrats an opportunity (certainly more of an opportunity than Harry Reid would have offered) to change the policy to their liking, or at least be able to tell constituents they tried.
But this year is different.
This year, we’re reading reports that “Democrats appear eager to return to shutdown politics.” This year we hear that “Democrats believe a hard-line stance is the only way to draw attention to their funding priorities,” which apparently does not include funding for troops and their retirement. And this year we learn that as part of a larger strategy with the White House “Senate Democrats are promising to filibuster all of the annual appropriations bills . . . until Republicans agree to spend more money on domestic programs.”
Then, perhaps sensing that this is one of those ideas that sounds really good in the echo-chamber of caucus, but begins to lose its luster when the public catches on, Democrats began to go wobbly. National Journal reports:
Senate Democrats were against defense authorization before they were for it. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, their message is mixed: They fully support the troops, but they really don’t like how Republicans are supporting the troops with contingency war funds.
Does that translate into a “no” vote or a “yes” vote? On the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets Pentagon policy, it’s a “yes.” On a Defense Department spending bill, it’s a “no.” The overseas contingency fund that Republicans are using to boost the Pentagon is acceptable to Democrats in a policy bill but not a spending bill.
Things were more confusing on the Senate floor. The three Democrats who spoke and voted against the Defense Authorization bill in committee, turned around and voted “yes” on the floor. Democrat leadership, like Minority Whip Dick Durbin who said “I’m voting no,” and Chuck Schumer, “I’m voting ‘ no,’ for sure,” just moments before the vote turned around and voted “yes,” when the time came for a vote.
So what gives? Simple. Democrats want to be able to say they support the troops and say they aren’t soft on national security, but they don’t want anything to get in the way of their larger political strategy. They think they can claim credit for troop funding and then turn around and vote against it.
It’s a questionable strategy that drew a harsh rebuke from Republican leadership.
“They’re not chess pieces for Democrats leaders to wield in some partisan game,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“This is a bad hostage to take,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. “The politics for Republicans on that, if Democrats wants to play it that way, is certainly advantageous to us.”
Hostages, chess pieces, neither is exactly the metaphor you want to be associated with when American troops are being discussed.