Susan Collins plans to challenge Trump's transgender troops ban in defense bill

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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, walks toward the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, the day lawmakers returned to Washington.

WASHINGTON — Two senators are preparing an amendment to challenge President Donald Trump’s announced ban on transgender troops serving in the military that they hope to attach to a sweeping defense bill the chamber is set to consider this month.

Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that she is drafting the amendment with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to “try to protect the transgender troops” against the order banning them from the military that Trump initially issued via Twitter in July.

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In a series of tweets, the president wrote that the government “will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” Last month, Defense Secretary James Mattis froze implementation of the president’s new policy until the Pentagon can convene experts to help determine how to best carry it out. In an official memorandum, the White House gave Mattis unti Feb. 1 to make that determination.

The backlash to Trump’s order has been swift and quite bipartisan — but it is not yet clear what the support for Gillibrand’s planned amendment will be. Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark said in a Wednesday email that final language of the amendment hasn’t been drafted yet, “but Senator Collins believes that our armed forces should welcome the service of any qualified individual who is willing and capable of serving our country.” Collins was one of 45 senators who asked the Pentagon last month to not discharge transgender soldiers until a review is completed.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., who is managing the bill, declined to comment for this story.

The entire $700 billion defense bill is also being held up by at least one senator’s objections to let it proceed unless he is promised a vote on an amendment giving Congress a chance to weigh in on the U.S. military’s engagement in foreign wars.

“I’m asking for one vote on an amendment to sunset 2001 and 2002 AUMFs,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Tuesday. “If I get that vote, I’ll let (the defense bill) go, otherwise I’ll oppose it coming up.”

The Trump and Obama administrations have argued, over the objections of many in Congress, that the legal foundation for continuing combat operations in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State can be found in a pair of authorizations for use of military force that Congress passed 15 years ago. The 2001 AUMF authorized military operations against al-Qaida, the Taliban and associated groups, while the 2002 AUMF let the military go into Iraq.

Paul’s amendment explained that it would not actually replace the AUMFs he seeks to repeal. Instead, it would “sunset” the existing AUMFs after six months, giving Congress a hard deadline in which to come up with an alternative.

It’s “kind of similar to what they’re doing with DACA,” Paul explained, noting it would “force us to debate on it in the next six months.”

On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that has let 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children study or work free from fear of deportation. The program will end after six months, however, giving Congress a window in which to try to pass a bill to allow them to stay.

Paul is not the only member of the Senate who has been angling for Congress to pass a new AUMF. Several members of Congress have proposed new AUMFs to replace one or both of those authorizations with a new mandate for combating extremist terrorist groups. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has promised that his committee would take up at least one AUMF proposal this year.

But though proponents of an AUMF believe that the defense authorization bill is a good vehicle for a military force authorization, the Senate’s chief antagonist for an AUMF said Tuesday that he disagreed with Paul’s approach of holding up the defense bill until a vote is guaranteed.

“The national defense bill is a product of our work across the aisle in the Armed Services Committee to support our troops, and holding that up unnecessarily would be a disservice to our service members and their families,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who has been angling for a new AUMF for several years. He and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., partnered again this year to write the AUMF proposal that has gained the most traction in the body.

“We do owe it to the public to debate our military engagements in the most transparent way possible, which is why the best approach is for the Foreign Relations Committee to accelerate its work, mark up a new AUMF, and vote on it,” Kaine added.

Paul may not be the only senator objecting to efforts to advance the defense bill through the Senate. On Tuesday evening, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was also resisting moving forward; a spokesman for Lee did not return an emailed request for comment.

But this is not the first time that Paul has held up such debate. Paul objected to the Senate bringing up the defense bill in the immediate aftermath of the failed health care vote, pushing the debate to September. McCain cast the deciding vote to bring down the health care bill, a vote Trump has forcefully complained about since, including during a rally in McCain’s home state of Arizona. But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Tuesday rejected rumors that anyone might be holding up the defense bill as a means of punishing McCain for that vote.

Senate leaders are trying to make sure that McCain can shepherd the bill through the Senate as he has done in years past, despite the senator’s struggle with his recent brain cancer diagnosis. McCain returned to Capitol Hill from the August recess with the rest of lawmakers Tuesday.

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