House and Senate Democrats are watching President Joe Biden’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan with unease, distancing themselves with some Americans left behind in the war-torn country and as Republicans plot to make the issue a major focus heading into the 2022 midterms.
In the wake of Biden’s assurances that no American would be stranded before troops left, and his miscalculation over the power of the Taliban to quickly take over the Afghan government, an array of Democrats are faulting his administration’s handling of the situation and are saying they need answers about the deadly end to the US’ longest war.
The issue is bound to come to a head on Wednesday when the House Armed Services Committee votes on a major defense bill that is certain to become ground zero for debate over the Biden administration’s Afghanistan policy. Republicans are preparing to offer an onslaught of amendments touching on everything from funding for the Taliban to the American citizens left behind, which could put some of the committee’s most vulnerable Democrats in a tough spot.
The GOP-led push — which comes after many in the party cheered then-President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban to evacuate US troops on an even earlier timeline — signals that the chaotic withdrawal has now become an issue that could resonate on the campaign trail.
Democrats in swing House districts and difficult Senate races are chiding Biden, with the likes of vulnerable Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire whacking “artificial timelines” set by the President to pull out of Afghanistan. There have been few congressional Democrats defending Biden and the Afghanistan withdrawal in recent days, as the President made a national address on Tuesday defending his decision and insisting it was time to end a war no longer in the national interest.
When asked if she believed the administration has handled the withdrawal well, Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell said Tuesday, “I want answers to the questions,” adding that Congress must conduct oversight and the US must help Americans evacuate while assisting with the plight of Afghan women under Taliban rule.
“What I’ve watched the last few weeks, I like, many Americans, are in the midst of angst and worry about what’s going to happen and about what happened,” Dingell, a Democrat and member of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team, told CNN.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “all four administrations” have made mistakes while overseeing the 20-year war, faulting in particular then-President George W. Bush for actions taken in 2002.
But Cardin added: “I think the Biden administration should have had a contingency plan for the rapid fall of the Afghan government, and a more orderly process for evacuation.”
The concerns are the latest indication of the challenges facing the Biden administration as it heads into a daunting period of legislating in the fall – where the White House and Democratic leaders will attempt to pass a massive social spending program, raise the national borrowing limit, avoid a government shutdown and approve a Senate-passed infrastructure bill. They’ll need total Democratic unity to pass much of their agenda, even as some are looking to keep the President at arms-length.
And it all comes as Democrats are clinging to their majorities in Congress, with growing fears that Biden’s slipping approval ratings could put at risk some of their party’s most endangered seats.
The GOP has jumped on the issue, continuously hammering Biden over his execution of the withdrawal. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — who has held four news conferences on the topic in a span of a week, even with the House on recess — encouraged Republicans in a letter to “exert maximum pressure on the Democrat majority with our amendments and debate” and “communicate the human stories of our fellow countrymen still in Afghanistan by meeting and doing events with local veterans in your districts and continuing to message on TV and local media.”
Republicans have also pumped out videos on social media to show they’re in Washington this week and call on Pelosi to bring the House back into session for in-person briefings and floor action.
But McCarthy has contradicted his own messaging at times, telling reporters last week he believes there should be no US troops in Afghanistan while saying at the same news conference that the US should have kept Bagram Air Base open indefinitely. And the California Republican also suggested the US should not negotiate with the Taliban, without mentioning that it was Trump who initially invited the Taliban to Camp David — an invitation that was ultimately scuttled.
Yet it’s not just Republicans who are pushing back. Some Senate Democrats in difficult reelection races are also sounding the alarm.
“Leaving any American citizen behind is unacceptable, and I will keep pushing this administration to do everything in its power to get our people out,” said Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat.
Hassan, who faces a difficult reelection, told WMUR last week that there have been “real miscalculations” by Biden’s foreign policy team, saying there shouldn’t be “artificial timelines” set for the withdrawal.
To push back against his critics, Biden offered a forceful defense of his decision to withdraw US troops in Afghanistan, delivering a speech Tuesday in which he argued that the evacuation was a “success” – despite the death of 13 US service members in a suicide bombing last week – while arguing that his choice was “between leaving and escalating.”
“I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit,” Biden said.
Biden said the US mission was shifting to a diplomatic effort to help the remaining seeking to leave Afghanistan get out of the country.
Some Democrats said Biden effectively made his case.
Rep. Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat in a swing district, said she was initially skeptical of the August 31 withdrawal deadline. But she said her view changed after seeing the thousands of Americans who were able to get airlifted out of the country and as she understood the danger facing US troops if they remained stationed there.
“The risk seemed to be escalating to a point where I can’t be second-guessing the commanders on the ground,” Luria told CNN.
Luria, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, added of Biden’s speech: “He was very strong and emphatic in his remarks and he stood behind the decision he made. … He spoke to people who had doubts” about the withdrawal. “And I think he was very clear on all those points.”
Contentious fight over Afghanistan awaits House panel
On Wednesday, the politics of Afghanistan and the 2022 midterms will collide when the Armed Services panel considers a $744 billion bill to authorize defense programs. The committee includes a number of Democrats in the most competitive races, including Rep. Elissa Slotkin, whose Michigan district voted for Trump last fall.
“Our office worked around the clock advocating to get American citizens and our Afghan partners through the gates in the final hours before the August 31 deadline,” Slotkin said, noting there are fewer than 200 in the country now. “In the coming weeks, I will be providing any assistance – and oversight – I can to make sure the administration gets every single one of them out of Afghanistan.”
While the annual National Defense Authorization Act covers everything from the Pentagon’s policies prosecuting military sexual assault to authorizing military pay raises and funding for F-35 fighter jets, much of the committee’s debate this year will be focused on Afghanistan.
House Republicans have filed more than 50 amendments related to Afghanistan, out of more than 700 that have been offered ahead of the committee debate, which often goes past midnight before the bill is advanced.
Congressional aides say the amendments include provisions to tell Congress what weapons may have fallen into the hands of the Taliban and what intelligence the Pentagon may have shared with them. Other proposals would designate the Taliban as a foreign terror organization, prohibit funding to the Taliban and require an Afghanistan counterterrorism plan from the Biden administration.
“There’s going to be a vigorous debate (on) NDAA,” vowed Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the panel’s top Republican.
In some cases, Democrats may find themselves in a difficult position: forced to choose between crossing their own party or taking tough votes on hot-button issues that could be turned into attack ads that hurt them back home.
“There’s going to be some things that are pretty hard-hitting,” GOP Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida, a combat-decorated Green Beret, told CNN. “The policy’s been pretty terrible, it’s been disastrous. I think when we stick to that, we’ll get some Democrats’ support.”
One GOP source said many of the amendments are likely to attract bipartisan support, as the committee contains a number of frontline Democrats poised to have difficult campaigns in next year’s midterms. But other Democrats on the committee with national security backgrounds may also be inclined to back some of the amendments.
Other frontline Democrats on the panel include Reps. Andy Kim of New Jersey and Jared Golden of Maine, who — like Slotkin — both represent districts won by Trump and have national security backgrounds.
“There’s a good number of folks on the committee who are pretty knowledgeable on this and have been critical of the administration. It’s not just the front-liners,” the GOP source said. The Biden administration “did not lay the groundwork with the House national security members on the Afghanistan withdrawal to position themselves where they’d have defenders.”
In addition to the Afghanistan policy, Rogers plans to offer an amendment to boost the Pentagon’s budget by $25 billion. That proposal may also attract bipartisan support, just as it did in the Senate Armed Services Committee in July, in a rebuke to the Biden administration.
The annual defense authorization bill, which authorizes funding and sets Pentagon policy, is one of the few major pieces of bipartisan legislation that actually gets signed into law every year. Still, the marathon markups can attract drama — and the fresh conflict over Afghanistan is promising to add a whole new layer to the debate.
“We’ll see how Afghanistan changes what was originally planned,” freshman Rep. Blake Moore, a Utah Republican who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN. “I got the sense that things were going to go relatively smoothly. But I think that this could add a lot more into that day.”
CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.