GOP defense stance carries huge risk
September 21st, 2010
by Andy Johnson
This piece was originally published in Politico.
Senate Republicans are on the clock.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to bring the 2011 defense authorization to the floor this week will reveal whether Republicans aim to block passage of a military spending bill for the first time in a half-century or whether they are going to put aside gridlock politics and let war-critical measures proceed.
The GOP’s choice is not without peril. First, a successful Republican effort to kill the bill could jeopardize continuing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the United States’ ability to foil terrorist attacks and combat the spread of nuclear weapons. Blocking it would also deny pay and health benefits increases for men and women in uniform and their families.
In any other year, these reasons would dissuade senators from endorsing obstruction over action. But there is a political risk as well. By blocking the bill, the GOP would give a gift that keeps on giving to Democrats, who could legitimately charge in the closing weeks of the 2010 campaign that Republicans are abandoning the military at the worst conceivable time. Why would the GOP so wound itself?
Last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, offered a troubling insight into why Republicans might try to kill the defense bill when he observed: “If we, and I think we can, take over the Senate, I’ll be chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. … This is a totally inexperienced president who is making decisions on national security for political reasons — and I don’t take that charge lightly.”
Reading between the lines is not hard. Some in the Republican leadership want to block all Senate action and wait for a more advantageous power arrangement, if not majority control, after the midterm elections. The irony of McCain’s unfounded assertion that President Barack Obama makes “decisions on national security for political reasons” is that a GOP strategy to block the defense authorization bill would do just that: place partisan goals above national security.
McCain has said that he does not want the Senate to act now because he opposes two provisions. The first would repeal the military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian soldiers if the president and the Pentagon leadership certify that doing so would not harm military readiness and cohesion. The second would repeal the prohibition on legal abortions in Defense Department medical facilities, provided they are not paid for with government funds.
Efforts to strip out these provisions during the Armed Services Committee markup failed on votes of 16-12 and 15-12, respectively. But are they so objectionable that they outweigh the bill’s cumulative benefits to our military and the security protections afforded to all Americans? Two committee Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, did not think so when they voted in favor of reporting out the bill in May.
Even in the most hyperpolitical of times, national security legislation has been largely protected from political machinations and partisan conniving. If Republicans block the defense authorization bill this week, they might do irreparable damage to this legacy.
In the process, Republicans risk a self-inflicted political wound not unlike the one they suffered under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich during the government shutdown in 1995.
The Senate has a responsibility to carry out its duty and pass annual legislation that is the lifeblood of our military. The clock is ticking and time is running out.
Not taking up the defense bill because of political jockeying is an abdication of duty — an option the men and women of our military do not have.
Andy Johnson, national security director at Third Way, a nonpartisan policy organization, is former staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He served in the government’s national security sector for 26 years.
Tags: Defense, Dont Ask Dont Tell, Gay Rights, Harry Reid, Military, Moderates, progressives, Republicans, Senate, Spending, third way Posted in General Interest, National Security Program, Social Policy & Politics Program