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Partisanship Could Play A Role In This Year's Defense Budget


Partisan divisions have been deepening on Capitol Hill for years. One longstanding exception, though, has been the House Armed Services Committee. For 58 years straight, it has passed a big annual defense policy bill with broad bipartisan support. But as that panel met today to hammer out this year's National Defense Authorization bill, it was a very different picture. NPR's David Welna has our story.


ADAM SMITH: All right, the committee will come to order. Welcome all.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: When House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith gaveled in today's markup, as the Defense Policy bill's final drafting session is known, the Washington state Democrat had a pointed reminder for the panel's 57 members.


SMITH: This committee, I think, has an incredibly bipartisan tradition and a tradition of understanding how important it is for us to pass this bill.

WELNA: Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican who had to relinquish the chairman's gavel to Smith this year, sounded a tad less optimistic.


MAC THORNBERRY: I've got to confess at the beginning I have some worry of the possibility of a partisan outcome this year.

WELNA: And that's because this Democrat-drafted defense bill rejects some key Trump administration defense policies. While it authorizes $733 billion for defense outlays next year, that's $17 billion less than what the White House wants. The bill bans spending any military money for walling off the border with Mexico. It also bans sending any more war captives to Guantanamo.

In separate breakfast meetings this week with reporters, Committee Chairman Smith and ranking member Thornberry we're like two boxers talking up their prospects before a big prize fight. Here's Smith playing down the Democrats' differences with Republicans.


SMITH: The amount of stuff that we disagree on is probably about 2% of the bill.

THORNBERRY: I don't know about 2%.

WELNA: And that's Thornberry undercutting Smith. One thing both lawmakers agree on is that one issue dramatically divides the panel along party lines. It's whether so-called low-yield nuclear weapons, meaning bombs not big enough to destroy entire cities, should be loaded onto submarines. The Trump administration wants those low-yield nuclear weapons to deter the Russians or Chinese from using similar weapons, a policy Thornberry supports.


THORNBERRY: It is more effective to say, we've got something to match you at whatever level you try, so don't try it, buddy. That's what we have to convey.

WELNA: But the bill the committee is voting on today would ban arming submarines with low-yield nukes. The issue was debated last week during a contentious session of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee. The chairman, Tennessee Democrat Jim Cooper, argued such nuclear weapons likely would never be used and that they'd be displacing the submarines' more conventional missiles.


JIM COOPER: I hope that members realize that adding a small number of low-yield weapons to our submarines will actually decrease, not increase, our strategic power by subtracting priceless missile tubes and by risking exposure of our submarines to attack.

WELNA: Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney offered an amendment removing the ban on submarine-based low-yield nukes. Not to do so, she said, would send this bad message to the nation's adversaries.


LIZ CHENEY: Keep moving forward with your destabilizing policies because the Democratic majority in the House seems unwilling to do what is necessary to keep this nation safe.

WELNA: In an outcome more reminiscent of a Supreme Court nomination fight, Cheney's amendment was rejected in a straight party-line vote. For Ohio Republican Mike Turner, it was a turning point.


MIKE TURNER: There is not one member on this side of the aisle that will be voting for the subcommittee mark, and this will be a first.

WELNA: It would also be a first should the entire defense bill be approved along party lines later tonight, an outcome that could cloud the prospects for this must-pass legislation getting enacted a 59th year straight. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.