Space Force in Jeopardy After Democrats Gain Control of House


The Democrats' takeover of the House deals a potential knockout punch to the plan for a Space Force as a new military branch and also poses challenges to current programs and projected budgets for the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy told last week that Democrats regaining a majority in the House would likely mean a return to defense budget gridlock and the continuing resolutions and threats of government shutdowns that have delayed Pentagon planning in the past.

One of the immediate results in the new Congress is likely to be a hold on Trump's plan to set up a Space Force as an independent military branch.

Space Force in trouble

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, who is poised to take over the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee from Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and other Democrats have already made their case for keeping military space programs within the existing structure of the Air Force.

They have also balked at the projected $1 billion price tag for building a new headquarters for the Space Force.

The divided Congress could also put the brakes on Trump-backed initiatives at the VA, with Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, likely to take over from Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

More delay, stalemates

McCarthy said he expected "a lot of continuing resolutions" in reaching an agreement on the next defense budget.

"It will be tough. It will be tough to get a deal," he said, adding that delays could slow momentum behind the Army's modernization drive to replace its major combat systems by 2028.

The election results, with Democrats again in control of the House and Republicans building on their slim majority in the Senate, could also lead to stalemate on the Pentagon's inevitable requests for additional funding to meet unexpected contingencies, such as rebuilding Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida's Panhandle.

Rebuilding Tyndall

Last week, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told defense reporters in a conference call that she didn't immediately have a cost estimate for rebuilding Tyndall from the damage caused by Hurricane Michael, but the effort will require going to Congress with a supplemental request for additional funding.

She also said that all of more than 50 F-22 Raptors that had been based at Tyndall would operate out of other bases during the rebuilding, which could take several years and make congressional approval of a supplemental request more problematic.

Adding to the uncertainty on a range of issues is the prospect that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis might not be there to argue the Pentagon's case.

Mattis’ Future

Both Mattis and President Donald Trump have scoffed at speculation that the retired four-star Marine general would step down after the midterm elections, but the rumors spiked when the president did a CBS "60 Minutes" interview last month in which he described Mattis as "sort of a Democrat" while insisting that they maintain a good rapport.

Before the West Coast results started to come in Tuesday night, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all projected that the Democrats would pick up more than the 23 seats they needed to gain the 218-seat majority in the House.

The projections also showed the Republicans retaining a majority in the Senate, which will keep Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a position once held by the late Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.

The election results provide a formula for legislative gridlock on any new initiatives from the president and funding for Trump-backed plans that were already in the works.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, who is likely to return as House speaker, said in statements early Wednesday that the midterms were primarily about "restoring the Constitution's checks and balances to the Trump administration."

VA Mission Act

One of the main successes touted by Trump since taking office was passage of the VA Mission Act, which gives veterans more options for choosing private care over the VA's vast system of hospitals and clinics.

The bill passed despite warnings from many Democrats and veterans service organizations, such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, that the legislation could be a Trump smokescreen for the ultimate privatization of VA health care.

In the run-up to the elections, the American Federation of Government Employees, representing the majority of the VA's more than 370,000 workers, issued a statement warning that "recent laws have kicked the door wide open for wholesale privatization of veterans' health care."

In July, shortly after the Senate confirmed Robert Wilkie as the new VA secretary, Takano joined other Democrats in backing a resolution warning that unfettered implementation of the VA Mission Act would gut the VA's main health care mission.

"More than nine million veterans depend on the VA to receive the health care services they need, "Takano said in a statement. "However, these services are being sabotaged by Republicans and special-interest groups who are focused on forcing veterans into the for-profit health care system."

Democrats have also questioned the awarding of a projected $10 billion contract, approved by Wilkie as acting secretary, to Cerner Corp. of Kansas City to overhaul the electronic health care records at the VA.

The lame-duck House Veterans Affairs Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the contract next week.

The latest election results Wednesday morning showed the Democrats picking up at least 29 seats in the House to give them a slim majority in the 435-seat chamber. Republicans picked up at least three Senate seats to add to their existing 51-49 edge.

Losses by at least two Republican military veterans in their re-election bids will also require a reshuffle of the GOP lineups on the House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committees.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, an Army and Marine Corps veteran who had a seat on both the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committees, lost to Army veteran and Democrat Jason Crow, who had vowed to be a check on Trump's policies.

Rep. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, and member of the Armed Services Committee, lost his re-election bid in a stunning upset to Democratic newcomer Kendra Horn, who made health care her main issue.

Republicans had held the Oklahoma City-area seat for 44 years.

Despite the loss of the House, Trump, who campaigned furiously across the nation to help Republicans in a series of campaign rallies, claimed victory in a series of Tweets.

He warned that Senate investigators would go after Democrats if the House, as expected, launches a series of investigations into his taxes and allegations of Russian collusion in the 2016 election.

"Two can play that game," he said in a tweet.

Trump surprisingly also offered an olive branch to Pelosi, one of his main targets in the campaign, if she runs into opposition with the Democratic caucus to returning as House speaker.

"In all fairness, Nancy Pelosi deserves to be chosen Speaker of the House by the Democrats," he tweeted. "If they give her a hard time, perhaps we will add some Republican votes. She has earned this great honor!"

One of the president's main targets for defeat, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, may have won re-election. As of noon Wednesday, Tester was holding a 1,000-vote lead over Republican Matt Rosendale in a seesaw battle.

Trump had blamed Tester for scuttling his nomination of Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, to become VA secretary. He later nominated Robert Wilkie for the post, and Tester backed him.

-- Matthew Cox contributed to this report.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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