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Senate Armed Services panel goes big with new defense budget

The $858 billion proposed for national security in the next fiscal year would be a roughly 10 percent increase

The Senate bill would authorize the purchase of two more Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.
The Senate bill would authorize the purchase of two more Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. (U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved its version of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act Thursday after adding more than $44 billion to the Biden administration’s request, sending the annual defense policy bill to the full Senate for consideration.

The bill would authorize $817.3 billion for the Defense Department. It also would authorize $29.7 billion for defense-related programs at other agencies and endorse another $10.6 billion in other congressional committees’ national security authorizations. The tally for the Pentagon is 5.7 percent more than the amount requested by President Joe Biden, and 5.4 percent more than Biden said he wanted for national security programs overall. 

The proposed increases, which congressional appropriators would have to back before they become law, would amount to a roughly 10 percent boost for the Defense Department and other national security programs over the fiscal 2022 enacted level, not counting supplemental aid for the Ukraine war effort.

The committee approved the legislation by a 23-3 vote but did not reveal how each senator voted. The panel considered 433 amendments, and adopted 223, according to a committee release.

The big increase in funding reflects lawmakers’ attempt to deal with two issues that were not sufficiently addressed in the Pentagon’s budget request: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and growing levels of inflation that eat into the Defense Department’s buying power.

Inhofe’s influence

The bill is named after Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe, who is the top Republican on the committee and served previously as its chairman. Inhofe is retiring from Congress at the end of the year.

Inhofe, who joined Congress in 1987 and became a senator in 1994, has been involved in more than half of the 61 defense authorization laws that Congress has helped enact.

Speaking on background during a briefing with reporters, a committee staffer said that about half of the $44 billion increase was directly related to inflation, which is running above 8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Another significant part of the increase is for additional security assistance for Ukraine, and looks to ramp up production of munitions needed in the ongoing war there with Russia.

The bill would also extend the European Deterrence Initiative, a program that provides weapons and training to counter Russian aggression, including authorizing $800 million for the Ukrainian Security Assistance Initiative.

In the committee’s release, Inhofe noted that for the second year in a row, the committee approved his amendment to increase the bill’s topline almost unanimously. Last year’s vote was 25-1, with Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the sole opponent.

“This is a demonstration of our commitment to our men and women in uniform and our willingness to compete, deter, and if necessary, defeat any adversaries who might threaten our American values and our way of life,” he said.

Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, also praised the bill for making investments that will deter adversaries and reassure allies.

“I stand ready to fight for the same kinds of smart investments for education, the environment, and our children. As we invest in our shared defense, we must make commensurate investments here at home,” he said.

Reed’s reference to domestic spending priorities presages the looming challenges for reaching a larger funding deal. While the defense policy bill authorizes but does not set actual funding levels, appropriators give it credence.

If the political dynamics of recent years remain, there will be enough bipartisan support for raising defense spending in both chambers. 

Spend more, buy more

Each year, Congress requires the services and combatant commands to submit an “unfunded priorities” list, items they deem essential that didn’t make the cut for the president’s budget request. This year, those lists totaled $21.5 billion, and the Senate’s bill authorizes funding for them all.

It also includes a 4.6 percent pay raise for servicemembers and DOD civilian personnel, matching Biden’s request.

The bill would allow the Pentagon to buy 68 F-35s, seven more than the Defense Department requested.

It would authorize the Navy to buy the eight battle-force ships it requested: two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers; two Virginia-class submarines; one Constellation-class frigate; one San Antonio-class amphibious ship; one John Lewis-class oiler; and one Navajo-class towing, salvage and rescue ship. At the same time, it blocks the Navy from retiring half of the 24 ships it wanted to decommission in 2023, including five littoral combat ships, four dock landing ships, and one cruiser.

It also would require at least 31 amphibious ships for the Marine Corps, a level Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger told the committee earlier this year was the minimum required to meet potential threats.

The bill would set overall active-duty troop levels as follows, although services have found recruiting to be challenging as civilian job opportunities continue to grow and the pool of qualified applicants shrink: Army, 473,000; Navy, 354,000; Marine Corps, 177,000; Air Force, 325,344; and Space Force, 8,600. 

Policy provisions

The bill builds upon changes made by last year’s authorization law in how cases involving sexual assault and other serious felonies are handled in the military. This year’s bill would add several offenses to those that must be referred to special prosecutors outside the chain of command, but the summary of the bill the committee provided does not specify which.

The bill would also require women to register for the draft, a largely symbolic measure since the U.S. has not utilized the draft to enlist servicemembers since 1972 and is now staffed by a fully volunteer force. Lawmakers included a similar provision last year, even after Armed Services member Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced an amendment to remove the requirement. But it was stripped out in closed door negotiations to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the bill.

The legislation also would authorize the closure of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in Hawaii, where a leak has contaminated drinking water on the island of Oahu.

The bill also includes a prohibition on closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, a provision that has become a mainstay in recent years.

Next steps

The House Armed Services Committee will mark up its own version of the policy bill next week during a marathon session on June 22. This could possibly allow time for the full chamber to vote before lawmakers leave Washington for the August recess.

Reed hopes to have the full Senate vote before the end of July, Senate Armed Services member Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters Thursday.

“Every year the defense bill is important, but this year had an extra level of importance to it because of what we’re seeing happen in Ukraine. The reality of great power conflict, which some of us might have assumed was over,” he said, “demonstrate that these issues of war, peace and diplomacy are not in the rear view mirror. They’re not theoretical. They’re real.”

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