The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP opposition appears to fizzle as plan advances to create Space Force, parental leave for federal workers

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who opposes a new parental-leave benefit for federal workers, appeared to accept in an interview Monday night that it would pass anyway. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Key congressional lawmakers announced their support Monday evening for a defense bill that would create both the Space Force and paid parental leave for more than 2 million federal workers, as signs of Republican opposition to the measure appeared to fade.

House and Senate negotiators in both parties said they would back the bill granting $658 billion to the Department of Defense and other defense programs, a measure that includes dozens of national security provisions prioritized by the armed services.

However, the measure faced at least some new opposition from liberals in Congress, who quickly announced that they would vote against it because of its lack of provisions curbing U.S. support for Saudi-led efforts in Yemen, which have earned bipartisan rebuke and led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

In a major deal struck late last week, the White House and congressional Democrats agreed to create the Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military in exchange for new parental-leave benefits for the federal workforce as part of the must-pass defense package. If approved, it would be the biggest victory for federal employees in nearly 30 years.

Trump’s Excellent Space Force Adventure

“Including paid family leave is a victory for all workers because it will help push more employers in the right direction and ensure more workers get paid family leave,” Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “Expanding access to paid family leave helps the health and economic well-being of individuals who have it and strengthens the ability of employers to retain their workers.”

Democrats leveraged Trump’s fixation on Space Force to pursue parental-leave victory for federal workers

The biggest remaining hurdle to the compromise appeared to be Senate Republicans, who earlier this year rejected a measure to establish similar benefits for federal workers.

But as of Monday afternoon, at least before the bill text was released, most in the Senate GOP caucus appeared prepared to approve the plan. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the committee that oversees government affairs, said he opposed the expansion of the federal benefit but does not expect to be able to stop it.

“I think it’s a done deal,” Johnson said, adding that the provision has key national security measures he thinks should be approved. He added of the leave benefit: “I think it’s unfortunate. I think it sets a very dangerous precedent.”

Several other Republican senators said they were prepared to support the deal, including Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Roy Blunt (Mo.).

“I don’t think it stops the NDAA from passing. I’m certainly supportive of it,” said Blunt, a member of Senate Republican leadership, using an abbreviation for the National Defense Authorization Act.

Still, new opposition to the plan materialized from the left Monday. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) almost immediately announced their opposition to the legislation, saying they would vote against it because it does not restrict America’s ability to help the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

On Tuesday morning, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, also said he would vote against the measure. He criticized the Space Force, high-levels of military spending and the continuation of a ban on transgender troops in the final version of the NDAA.

The Senate last year voted 56 to 41 to rebuke Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia, including by ending U.S. participation in that country’s war in Yemen. A report last year found that 85,000 children have starved to death during the Saudi-led intervention, while American and British bombs have injured hundreds, including women and children.

“Congress must vote against this disastrous Pentagon authorization — a bill of astonishing moral cowardice,” Sanders and Khanna said in a statement. “This bill does nothing to rein in out-of-control military spending, prevent unconstitutional war against Iran … or end the obscenity of innocent children in Yemen being killed by U.S. bombs.”

The defense bill does include some restrictions related to U.S. military support for Saudi coalition fighter jets, a congressional aide said. The White House and Republican lawmakers were unwilling to budge on the Yemen provision, said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private details of the negotiations.


An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.)