Rand Paul stalls key defense bill over troop withdrawals from Afghanistan

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The Senate is facing the possibility of a government shutdown as Sen. Rand Paul moved Thursday to filibuster the $740 billion annual defense policy bill while lawmakers race to approve federal spending legislation before the existing budget runs out Friday.

Lawmakers were set to vote this week on the National Defense Authorization Act — which sets military spending levels and defense policy — after the bill was passed Tuesday with a veto-proof majority by the House.

But Mr. Paul, Kentucky Republican, objected to a provision in the massive legislation that would limit the president’s ability to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan without the approval from Congress.

The provision — sponsored by Reps. Liz Cheney, Wyoming Republican, and Jason Crow, Colorado Democrat and Afghanistan war veteran — would order the White House to issue reports and make certain certifications before reducing the number of American troops in Afghanistan below 8,000.

“It is partisan anger,” Mr. Paul said. “People don’t like President Trump. But this will bind all future presidents.”

The debate comes amid efforts from the Trump administration to drastically reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Despite pushback from lawmakers, allies and military officials, the Pentagon last month forged ahead with Mr. Trump’s plan to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 each by Jan. 15 — five days before presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden is expected to take the oath of office.

America currently has 4,500 troops in Afghanistan and about 3,000 in Iraq, and both deployments date back to the early 2000s.

“This bill sets a very dangerous precedent for limiting a president’s power to end war and should be vigorously opposed,” Mr. Paul argued in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday.

Mr. Paul, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Politico that the “amendment alone is enough to make me object to it, as well as the amount of spending.”

As the junior senator from Kentucky continued his filibuster, his colleague from his home state, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, called on the chamber to progress the legislation in order to pass the wider-ranging federal budget.

“This legislation will secure wins on priorities that all of us share. It does not contain every policy that either side would like to pass,” Mr. McConnell said. “But a huge number of crucial policies are included and a lot of bad ideas were kept out. I encourage all our colleagues to vote to advance this must-pass bill.”

The last-ditch objection comes in the face of repeated threats from Mr. Trump, who has vowed to reject the bill because it includes a provision to rename military bases that honor former Confederate leaders and lacks language to repeal legal protections for communications companies.

The must-pass legislation is typically approved with bipartisan support, but it remains unclear whether the bill will receive enough support from lawmakers to skirt a presidential veto.

The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, predicted that the bill is likely to see a vote by Friday morning.

“If there’s cooperation we could, you know, finish those tonight, but at the moment it looks like we’ll be here tomorrow,” Mr. Thune said. “If people come together we could probably wrap a couple of things up this week and then work on the big stuff — the spending bill and COVID package — next week.”

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