Cramer near center of fight over border wall backfill, Guantanamo Bay

The North Dakota senator has been named to a committee aiming to iron out differences in military spending.

Paul Lindseth, dean of John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, shows Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Jim Bridenstine, a NASA administrator, a photo of the late Sen. John McCain fishing with John Odegaard in a display at Clifford Hall during a tour on Wednesday, Sept. 4.

WASHINGTON — A North Dakota lawmaker is near the center of an annual back-and-forth over United States military spending and high-level policy.

Sen. Kevin Cramer, the state’s junior senator, was appointed this month to a conference committee that will work to iron out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, a longstanding military appropriations bill Congress has renewed each year for decades, before sending it back to both chambers and, ultimately, President Donald Trump for final approval.

The two parties are working to reach a $738 billion compromise, Cramer said. But for now, the Democrat-controlled House’s $733 billion version of the legislation and the Republican-controlled Senate’s $750 billion version differ on more than sheer dollar amounts, perhaps most notably on Trump’s signature campaign promise: a proposed wall across the U.S. border with Mexico.

The Trump administration moved $3.6 billion from existing defense budgets toward the wall’s construction, and the House version of the bill would block future transfers and would not replace that money. The Senate version wouldn’t enact that ban. It also would replace the money that was appropriated for the wall, a move Cramer said he strongly supports.

“Those construction priorities remain priorities,” Cramer said. “I know what many of the Democrats don’t like, of course, is they took it in the first place, but that doesn’t change the importance of backfilling them.”


The two versions of the bill also differ on the future of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the United States' military prison in Cuba. The House version would ban new prisoners there and make it easier to transfer them to the U.S. proper. The Senate version would not.

“We would resist any language like that. At least I would resist language like that, in the reconciled bill,” Cramer said. “I think Guantanamo has proven to be important. I don’t like putting terrorists on U.S. soil in our mainland, where they can then demand rights that a U.S. citizen would have to jurisprudence and whatnot.”

And, as the U.S. and Iran rattle their sabers, the House version of the bill would bar unauthorized use of force against Iran. The Senate version would not.

“I don’t think we have to have language that says what a president can’t do,” Cramer said. “The president hasn’t done anything in Iran. He hasn’t ordered any strikes of any type. So, to me, I don’t like going down the path of codifying what a president can’t do. If the president does something we believe is wrong, we can deal with it at that time. So I don’t really like the idea of preempting the president’s decision.”

There are also provisions in either bill that Cramer said would be important to North Dakota specifically.

The Senate bill “fully” funds RQ-4 Global Hawk drone programming — many of those drones fly out of Grand Forks Air Force Base. Cramer said he was able to get $25 million in additional funding for the program in the Senate bill. He said he’ll also push for language that prevents the drawdown of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are one third of the U.S.’s “nuclear triad.”

The Senate bill also would ask the Department of Defense to assess how northerly bases, such as those in Minot and Grand Forks, can “further our interests in the arctic region,” Cramer said.

“Those beautiful Global Hawks that are flown out of Grand Forks have a lot of potential in the arctic region,” said Cramer, who represented North Dakota in the U.S. House of Representatives for six years before he was voted to the Senate in 2018.

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