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Senate clears compromise defense policy bill

President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill into law shortly

The USS Theodore Roosevelt patrols the Pacific Ocean in 2019.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt patrols the Pacific Ocean in 2019. (U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

The Senate easily passed the annual defense policy bill on Wednesday, authorizing $768 billion in defense spending for fiscal 2022.

The final tally for the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act was 88-11. Seven Democrats from the party’s progressive wing as well as Vermont independent Bernie Sanders voted no. Three Republicans also opposed the measure: Mike Braun of Indiana, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The legislation marks the 61st straight year that Congress has passed the NDAA. President Joe Biden is expected to sign it into law shortly.

The bill, which authorizes $25 billion more for the Defense Department than the Pentagon requested, took an indirect route to passage. In a typical year, the House and Senate both pass their own versions of the NDAA. A conference committee then irons out any differences and produces a final version for both chambers to pass.

This year, the Senate could not pass its own version, as Republicans and Democrats could not reach a deal on which amendments would receive votes. It appeared that there was a deal in place to hold votes on two dozen amendments, but it fell apart as Marco Rubio, R-Fla., held out for a vote on his amendment to ban the importation of Chinese goods produced by the slave labor of Uyghurs and others.

The Senate had previously passed Rubio’s amendment as a standalone bill and the House passed a similar measure on Tuesday, with enactment expected soon.

Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees quickly hashed out a compromise defense authorization bill, and the House passed it last week on a 363-70 vote.

Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke in favor of the bill before the Senate vote.

The bill addresses a broad range of pressing issues, “from strategic competition with China and Russia to disruptive technologies like hypersonics, AI, and quantum computing, to modernizing our ships, aircraft and vehicles,” Reed said. “It provides our servicemembers with the resources and support they need to defend our nation while at the same time taking care of their families.”

The bill would create an Afghanistan War Commission to examine 20 years of U.S. government involvement in the longest war in American history, so that key lessons can be learned from strategic mistakes. This proposal was spearheaded by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who insisted that anyone involved in decision making during the war be barred from serving on the panel.

Inhofe criticized Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer for not bringing to a vote the Senate’s version of the bill, which the Armed Services Committee approved in July.

The national security situation has deteriorated significantly since then, with a tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan, a Chinese test of a new hypersonic vehicle, and Russia amassing troops along the Ukrainian border, Inhofe said.

“I can’t think of a more necessary bill to pass right now,” he said.

Appropriations next

With the authorization passed, attention will now shift to defense appropriations, which actually fund defense programs. But that legislation remains in limbo.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said before Wednesday’s vote that he is still waiting for Republicans on the panel to engage in negotiations over the funding levels.

Meanwhile, Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, told reporters ahead of the NDAA vote that he wants to increase defense spending by more than the amount authorized, but declined to say how much.

“It’s a start,” he said of the authorization bill.

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