WASHINGTON — The fate of an ongoing military buildup, war oversight, veterans affairs and decisions on who can enlist in the service now rests with a split Congress following the results of Tuesday’s midterm elections.
By early Wednesday, Democrats won control of the House, shifting leadership of key committees that direct military and veteran issues. However, Republicans retain control of the Senate.
With hundreds of congressional seats contested in the midterm elections, Republican control of the House and Senate was in question. Polls suggested Democrats had a good chance at gaining control of the House, but less so in the Senate.
Some pundits suggested the Democrats winning of the House was due in large part to a new wave of military veterans being elected to congressional seats.
“From tonight’s results, it is clear that Americans are hungry for a change in leadership and a new tone in politics,” said Emily Cherniack, founder and executive director of bipartisan political group New Politics. “They have now made their voices heard with their vote, placing their support behind veteran candidates who have dedicated their lives to putting our country first and have shown that they can be the antidote to what our politics needs.”
All 435 seats in the House and 35 of the Senate’s 100 seats were up for grabs. With Republicans under threat, both parties ramped up their campaign efforts.
President Donald Trump held 50 rallies for Republicans while former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden and entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey made appearances for Democrats in hotly contested districts and voter turnout reached unprecedented levels in competitive races across the country.
In the heat of the struggle, some Democratic lawmakers laid out a strategy for military issues should they gain control.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the ranking Democrat for the House Armed Services Committee who won re-election Tuesday, is poised to take the helm of the committee. Smith had said ahead of Tuesday’s elections that new initiatives could gain priority under the new House leadership. That includes defense spending, increased oversight and thwarting limits to who can serve in the military.
“I think the biggest difference will probably be more oversight,” Smith had said. “We’re not clear exactly where this administration is going with the military.”
Control shifts for key committees
With Democrats capturing control of the House, they take over leadership of the key House committees of Armed Services, Veterans Affairs and Appropriations. The Armed Services Committee helps shape policy and spending at the Pentagon, while the Veterans Affairs committee handles issues facing former servicemembers and the Appropriations Committee directs funding to the Pentagon.
Jon Soltz, chairman of progressive political organization VoteVets, said the shift will allow Democrats to help rein in some of Trump’s efforts.
"The gain here is the House,” said Soltz, whose VoteVets endorsed a slate of mostly majority candidates. And the House can now “hold Donald Trump’s policies accountable… you will start to see a House able to audit a reckless president and reckless commander in chief. …Democrats have a lot of reason to be optimistic.”
In the upper chamber, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., is expected to remain in his role as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Inhofe took the seat after the death of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in August.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said ahead of the elections that there would still be plenty of continuity on defense matters even if Democrats took control. Reed, who is in a current term that ends in 2020, pointed to support for the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, the legislation that dictates Pentagon policies and spending.
Instead, Reed said the biggest challenge would likely be the so-called sequestration – automatic, across-the-board budget cuts. Those spending restrictions would be triggered if Congress can’t reach a deal next year to lift them.
“The last year, the votes in both chambers were overwhelming bipartisan,” Reed had said. “So, I don’t think they shift dramatically because the same leadership that was behind the support of the issues – the NDAA – would be in the leadership in the House and the Senate next year.”
Several key members of the Armed Services committees in the House and Senate won re-election Tuesday, including Reps. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., and Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., and Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Takano poised to lead VA committee
With control of the House switching to Democrats, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., is looking to become the next chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Takano won re-election Tuesday against his Republican challenger, Aja Smith.
Takano has already laid out his priorities for the committee if he were to take over as chairman. They include stopping the deportation of veterans and establishing more effective citizenship procedures for immigrant servicemembers. He wants to fill the tens of thousands of vacancies across the Department of Veterans Affairs and stop for-profit colleges from targeting and cheating veterans.
For the past two years, with a Congress and White House led by Republicans, the House and Senate veterans affairs committees have pushed through major bipartisan reforms, from expanding veterans’ education benefits to overhauling the VA’s private-sector health care programs and giving VA leaders more authority to fire their employees.
With the chambers now split, they’re likely to experience gridlock.
In a speech to the American Legion in August, Takano vowed to work with Republicans and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. However, one of his top priorities – veteran deportation and citizenship for immigrant servicemembers – is a topic that Republicans in Congress have been unwilling to address.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chairman of the House Committee of Veterans’ Affairs, will keep his seat after defeating his Democratic challenger by a wide margin. Nine other Republicans on the committee won Tuesday. One Republican member – Rep. Bruce Poliquin – remained in a tight race early Wednesday morning against his opponent, Iraq War veteran Jared Golden.
One longtime congressman, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., lost to first-time political candidate and Iraq War veteran Jason Crow. Coffman, who was seeking a sixth term in the House, is a member of the House Armed Services and VA committees.
Three Democrats on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs didn’t seek re-election. Rep. Tim Walz won the Minnesota gubernatorial race Tuesday, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, also a member of the Armed Services Committee, lost his race to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Elizabeth Esty is leaving Congress following a harassment scandal including her chief of staff. All other Democrats on the committee will keep their seats.
Jon Tester, a senator since 2007, remained in a tight race Wednesday morning with Republican Matt Rosendale in a hard-fought race in Montana. An upset would leave a hole on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, on which Tester serves as the ranking Democrat. Working with Republicans and Democrats the past two years, Tester was a top decision-maker on veterans issues and helped shepherd several major, bipartisan VA reforms through Congress.
The Montana race was one of the most closely watched in this election, with Trump traveling to the state four times since July. He repeatedly went after Tester – at rallies and via Twitter – for his role in toppling Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson’s nomination to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Trump accused Tester of leading a “Democrat mob” to “destroy” Jackson. However, Trump acknowledged during one rally in October that Jackson may not have been qualified for the job.
Tester fought Trump’s attacks, arguing he fulfilled his constitutional responsibility to vet the nominee. Tester voted to confirm Trump's second nominee, Robert Wilkie.
New Congress, new challenges
Lawmakers will need to address spending caps slated to return for the 2020 fiscal year under the Budget Control Act, or BCA, which could cut the budget to $576 billion.
That would be a dramatic slash from an initial Pentagon budget that said spending would need to be $733 billion in the new fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, 2019.
Democrats could thwart Trump-led plans for a spending spree for “low-yield” nukes, the creation of a new, costly branch of the military called Space Force to address defense for space-based endeavors, boost oversight in military operations domestic and abroad, and push for legislation revamping the president’s war powers.
Smith said Democrats also will be keen to address new Trump limits on who is eligible to serve in the military. Smith suggested discrimination has been driving efforts to block certain recruits to serve, including immigrants and transgender individuals.
Democrats can make “sure we don’t allow bigotry to get in the way of people serving the country,” Smith said.