Progressive lawmakers and organizers are vowing to try to block this year’s Pentagon budget after several key amendments were excluded from the final bill, including provisions that would end American support for the ongoing Saudi-led war in Yemen.
The National Defense Authorization Act – a massive, 700-page bill – is considered “must-pass” legislation because the U.S. military can’t operate without it being renewed after December.
This year’s proposed budget authorizes a record $738 billion in military spending – well over the defense budgets of China and Russia combined.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed its version of the NDAA in July that included a series of amendments aimed at ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition that has laid siege to Yemen since 2015 in an effort to drive Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from power.
But almost none of these provisions were included in the final, “reconciled” bill that was agreed to by House and Senate leaders on Monday.
“It was one thing when we were going to stop the war in Yemen,” Congressman Ro Khanna told The Globe Post Tuesday. “We were willing to possibly consider swallowing this defense increase.”
But without those provisions, progressives say they will do everything in their power to block the bill and force House and Senate leaders to go back to the drawing board.
‘Astonishing Moral Cowardice’
In a joint statement issued Monday night, Khanna and Senator Bernie Sanders slammed the legislation as a “bill of astonishing moral cowardice” that does nothing “to end the obscenity of innocent children in Yemen being killed by U.S. bombs.”
“Every member of Congress should vote against this measure,” the lawmakers said.
“There is no pressing reason for Congress to shower Trump, his Saudi friends, and the Pentagon contractors of the military-industrial complex with this $738-billion taxpayer giveaway right now.”
With hundreds of thousands of people facing starvation, Yemen remains on the brink of famine and is the site of what the U.N. deems the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Tens of thousands of Yemeni children have starved to death since the outset of the war while thousands of civilians have been killed in the fighting, including by airstrikes conducted with American-made weapons.
The U.S. has played an integral role in supporting the Saudi coalition since the outset of intervention in 2015, providing billions of dollars in high-tech weaponry as well as training, intelligence sharing, maintenance and logistical support, and even direct-aerial refueling of coalition aircraft operating in Yemen.
The final version of the NDAA put forth by House and Senate leadership does include a provision banning aerial refueling, though the practice was already discontinued in September 2018.
The U.N has condemned the coalition’s bombing campaign in Yemen and warned in September that the U.S. could be held responsible for potential war crimes committed by its partners, including indiscriminately killing civilians and using starvation as a weapon of war.
But for Michael Herson, a top defense-industry lobbyist who worked to strip Yemen provisions from the NDAA, continuing support for the Saudi coalition is “strictly business.”
“I’m from New Jersey, so my favorite movie is ‘The Godfather’; my favorite line is ‘it’s not personal, it’s strictly business,’” Herson, who also lobbies for the government of the United Arab Emirates, said in an interview with The Hill last week.
U.S. President Donald Trump has justified his support for the war in much the same way, saying he does not want to tarnish billions of dollars in weapons deals between U.S. companies and coalition countries by pulling the plug on support for the war effort.
With the White House and some of the most powerful special interests in Washington against them, a coalition of grassroots organizations and sympathetic lawmakers have waged an uphill, years-long battle to end American complicity in Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
In April, Congress passed a war powers resolution introduced by Sanders and Khanna that would have ended U.S. support for the war, marking the first time Congress had ever successfully evoked the War Powers Act since it was passed in 1973. The resolution, however, was ultimately vetoed by Trump.
“We wouldn’t have got the war powers resolution through without them,” Khanna said, speaking about grassroots organizations like Win Without War, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and the Yemen Peace Project.
‘Outsourced to the White House’
But even though the Senate passed the war powers resolution on Yemen with significant bipartisan support, Senate Republicans led by Arms Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe refused to allow similar provisions into the final text of the NDAA.
“This NDAA was outsourced to the White House,” Khanna said, explaining the seeming contradiction.
“I have been dismayed by how much deference Congress has given the White House to help draft the NDAA.”
Even still, Khanna and progressive organizers expressed disappointment and frustration Tuesday that House Democrats, led by Armed Services Chair Adam Smith, did not hold their ground more in the negotiations.
In a statement co-signed by 31 other progressive organizations, Win Without War condemned the NDAA agreement as a “a near complete capitulation” on the part of Democratic leadership.
In addition to the Yemen issue, progressives were also upset that Democratic leaders allowed other key provisions from the House bill to be omitted, including amendments that would have prevented Trump from going to war with Iran without Congressional authorization and put limits on the development of “low-yield” nuclear weapons.
It’s unclear whether or not progressives will have enough votes to block the NDAA in its present form, though it appears they will need to garner “no” votes from some Republicans who share similar concerns.
Hassan El-Tayyab, a legislative representative with FCNL, told The Globe Post Tuesday that his organization is going to work to do just that.
“We’ve proved that there’s bipartisan support to end endless wars and to put a check on the Pentagon and the administration,” he said. “And we’re not stopping here.”