Biden Contends with Congress

Defense Budget, War Authorization Overshadow US Foreign Policy

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks during a hearing before Senate Rules and Administration Committee at Russell Senate Office Building March 24, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks during a hearing before Senate Rules and Administration Committee at Russell Senate Office Building March 24, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Biden Contends with Congress

Struggles now underway in the U.S. Congress will affect the Biden’s administration’s foreign policy for years to come. On one front, Democrats and Republicans are arrayed across familiar lines in a dispute over the Defense budget. On another, factions within the Democratic party are debating whether to circumscribe or remove President Biden’s war-making powers altogether.

The Defense Budget at a Crossroads

As the administration drafts a series of major spending proposals over Covid relief and stalled infrastructure projects, a quiet confrontation is brewing over defense spending. Factions within the Democratic party, primarily but not exclusively affiliated with the progressive wing, are calling for marked cuts in defense spending to finance other legislative priorities.

In a letter released on March 16, a group of 50 Democratic representatives in the House called on President Biden to “significantly” slash the Department of Defense’s budget, which presently stands at roughly $700 billion. “While we are heartened that your administration is not contemplating expanding the Pentagon’s already inflated budget, our new Democratic majorities in Congress along with your administration should go further,” the lawmakers wrote to Biden. “Rather than requesting a flat Pentagon budget, we urge you to seek a significantly reduced Pentagon top line.

At the same time, Senate Republican leadership is signaling to the administration that an increase in the defense budget would yield GOP support for other elements of the White House’s agenda.  “If the administration is up to the task, they’ll find strong partners in this Republican conference,” McConnell, of Kentucky, said on the Senate floor. “Here’s one big test: Are they willing to keep investing in our own defense?”

McConnell’s remarks hold particular sway as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other senior Democrats are crafting legislation designed to erode Chinese economic advantages by supporting the American tech sector and pushing back against intellectual property theft. “If any issue is ripe for a regular-order bipartisan process, it is this one,” McConnell said, highlighting the wide consensus that has formed in recent months over resisting Chinese encroachment. “Defense spending is the crucial first step,” he stressed.

War Powers Debate Stirs

If spending is one crucial area of looming factional strife, renewed Congressional interest in limiting the White House’s latitude for the use of military force abroad is another. Recent reports indicate that key members of Congress are mulling initiatives aimed at rescinding three previous authorizations for the use of military force (colloquially known in Washington as AUMFs): the 1991 measure which authorized the first Persian Gulf War, the 2001 bill which passed days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the 2002 legislation which authorized the second Iraq War.

As Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware put it, “I think we’re overdue. ... We are so far past the scope of what any member serving in '01 or '02 imagined… I think it’s important that we take this up, debate it, and pass something.” Other prominent Democrats agree. As Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, a newly minted member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, put it, “On war powers, there’s blame on both sides the last ten years. We need to have a robust debate on something that fundamental. We just haven’t had it.”

Other opponents of the war authorizations struck a different note. Senator Kaine of Virginia, formerly the Party’s 2016 Vice-Presidential nominee, has pushed to repeal the 2001 and 2002 war authorizations on constitutional grounds. Biden’s February airstrikes in Syria lent new impetus to this push. “Congress is supposed to be the decision-maker here on the initiation” of strikes, Kaine recently said. “I shouldn’t have to hypothesize it — [the Biden administration] should come and lay out the rationale… Let’s have a debate in front of the American public on what the stakes are.”

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