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GOP claims victory in final defense policy bill

Republicans secured removal of provisions on drafting women and combating extremism in the ranks

Lawmakers in both chambers had backed a provision to the defense bill requiring women to register for the draft, but it was removed without explanation in advance of House passage.
Lawmakers in both chambers had backed a provision to the defense bill requiring women to register for the draft, but it was removed without explanation in advance of House passage. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The final version of the annual defense policy bill the House passed on Tuesday was overwhelmingly bipartisan, but on the margins it delivered more wins for Republicans than it did for Democrats.

That was evident in comparing the House’s passage of its own version of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act in September, and its vote for the latest version, a compromise with the Senate.

In September, the House passed the version written by its Armed Services Committee on a 316-113 vote, with 75 Republicans and 38 Democrats opposed. But during the 363-70 vote on Tuesday, only 19 Republicans voted no, while 51 Democrats did.

The shift reflects what lawmakers are feeling: The final bill is, in some ways, a victory for the GOP and a disappointment to progressives. 

That’s not because it authorizes a $25 billion increase in defense spending above that requested by President Joe Biden — the September version did as well — but rather  is mainly the result of GOP policy victories on various culture war issues.

The GOP secured those wins behind closed doors as Armed Services Committee leaders worked out a compromise version of the bill last weekend.

GOP touts wins

Though the House’s original version required women to register for the draft — a change that had won bipartisan support in both the House and Senate Armed Services committees — the latest version does not. Conservative Republicans got their way on that over a clear majority of their colleagues who see it as both a gender equality issue and a commonsense change for national security.

The original version would also have permitted military commanders to take guns away from servicemembers subject to a military protective order. Those orders are typically issued to keep servicemembers away from another person in suspected cases of domestic abuse. After Republicans protested it as an infringement on Second Amendment rights, the lawmakers negotiating the final product removed the so-called “red flag” provision.

The final version also does not include an amendment by Democrat Anthony G. Brown of Maryland that was approved earlier this year by the House Armed Services Committee. It would have created an Office of Countering Extremism to combat violent ideologies in the ranks. Republicans feared it would prompt witch hunts targeting conservatives. (Brown, a 30-year Army veteran, voted no in protest.)

The bill also retained a Republican-backed provision barring the military services from dishonorably discharging servicemembers for failing to comply with Biden’s mandate that they receive a vaccine against COVID-19.

Republicans touted their accomplishments. “Promises made, promises kept; we did what we said we were going to do,” Florida Republican Kat Cammack said during the floor debate.

“No dishonorable discharges for servicemembers who refuse the vaccine and it is retroactive. No unconstitutional red flag laws. We killed and buried the dangerous Office of Domestic Extremism,” she said. “This bill is a win.”

Democrats split

In total 194 Republicans voted for the bill, along with 169 Democrats. Democratic supporters like House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith of Washington stressed a provision overhauling the military justice system to combat sexual assault — he called it “transformational” and “the single most important thing” in the bill — but were met with fellow Democrats who were less than satisfied.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who’d pushed a more far-reaching overhaul, said Smith and the other Armed Services leaders had “gutted our bipartisan military justice reforms.”

Unlike the Republicans, Democrats found themselves lamenting the decisions of Armed Services leaders to exclude provisions they wanted. 

The final version disappointed Washington, D.C.’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, because it did not grant the D.C. mayor control over the city’s National Guard troops. The issue of Washington’s National Guard was brought to the forefront in June 2020, when then-President Donald Trump deployed the Guard to quell sometimes-violent protests that arose in response to the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin.

Norton said in a release that Trump’s use of the Guard in 2020, followed by his failure to call it out quickly to repel the rioters storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 of this year, were “prime examples of why giving the mayor control is vital.”

California Democrat Judy Chu voted no, she said, in part to protest the exclusion of language permitting the transfer of detainees at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States for trial. 

Most of the Democratic opponents were members of the Progressive Caucus, like House Armed Services member Ro Khanna of California, who tweeted after the vote: “Is this really the best we can do while having the Presidency and both Houses?”

Khanna explained that he couldn’t “support a bill that spends far more on the Pentagon than the Pentagon asked for.”

In the Senate, the bill is likely to make similar waves. 

Gillibrand has pledged to vote no to protest the removal of her military justice provision, which would have given professional prosecutors more control over a greater array of criminal cases than the provision in the final bill, which covers fewer offenses and leaves some key decisions to military commanders.

Other progressive senators have also voiced their displeasure with the bill, namely its $25 billion increase for defense funding. 

Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., both signaled in November that they would oppose the NDAA for that reason alone.

Still, the Pentagon bill is considered a must-pass piece of legislation that has been enacted every year for the past 60 years. Despite some partisan infighting over provisions, the mammoth piece of legislation is almost assured to be enacted for the 61st straight year. 

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