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House poised for NDAA floor debate

Debate could see intense back-and-forth on a number of topics

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly has a proposal that would suspend certain weapons sales to Saudi Arabia for 120 days at a time for a three-year period, unless President Joe Biden can certify that Saudi Arabia is not engaging in listed human rights abuses.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly has a proposal that would suspend certain weapons sales to Saudi Arabia for 120 days at a time for a three-year period, unless President Joe Biden can certify that Saudi Arabia is not engaging in listed human rights abuses. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House takes up its annual National Defense Authorization Act this week, and the most consequential amendments may or may not be the ones that generate the most rhetorical heat.

By the time the dust settles at week’s end, the House will almost certainly have passed its fiscal 2023 NDAA. Members have filed more than 1,200 amendments to the bill, but less than half of them can be expected to be made in order. Last year, the House voted on 476 amendments.

Depending on which amendments are allowed by the Rules Committee during Tuesday’s meeting, the subsequent floor debate could see intense back-and-forth on a number of topics.

Recurring issues

The amendments that have been filed include some, coming from the ideological extremes of the two parties, that are not likely to be adopted.

These include GOP attempts to block Defense Department COVID-19 vaccine mandates or to disallow certain consequences for servicemembers who flout those requirements.

The debate could also include a pair of Republican amendments that would bar the transfer or release of prisoners from the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba — proposals the Democratic majority is likely to defeat.

Also facing an uphill climb are some Democratic amendments, such as those that would cut the total amount of spending authorized in the bill, an amount the Congressional Budget Office pegged this month at $840.2 billion.

Proposals from both parties to repeal authorizations to use military force in Iraq and Afghanistan — laws that are now more than two decades old — also face long odds of enactment, even if the House were to adopt them.

New entrants

Beyond those partisan proposals, the House may consider amendments that could, if enacted, have a sizable impact on everything from disabled veterans savings accounts to the fate of international alliances.

These amendments include proposals to restrict military aid to Turkey and Saudi Arabia; another that would give the mayor of Washington, D.C., command over the D.C. National Guard; a change to Pentagon budget rules; stricter regulation of chemicals that threaten drinking water; and an amendment to require that Congress be notified when a president has ordered a nuclear strike under certain circumstances.

The nuclear amendment, by Michigan Democrat Elissa Slotkin, would require that the Defense secretary, or whichever official received a presidential order to use nuclear weapons absent a declaration of war, must notify congressional leaders of it “before carrying out such an order.”

On the disabled veterans issue, two separate amendments, each with broad bipartisan support, would take slightly different approaches to changing the law so that the estimated 50,000-plus veterans who have sustained lifelong injuries in war do not see their retirement pay from the Defense Department offset by the amount of their disability pay from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The sponsor of one the two veterans amendments is Republican Gus Bilirakis of Florida, while a similar proposal was offered by Democrat Raul Ruiz of California. The change is backed by a coalition of nearly three dozen military family advocacy groups.

World affairs

Geopolitics could also be affected by the outcome of the House NDAA debate, if certain amendments are made in order.

A proposal by Democrat Chris Pappas of New Hampshire would limit export of certain defense goods or services to any NATO ally that has, in the last year, infringed on the airspace of another country.

The amendment appears to be aimed at barring a potential sale of American F-16s to Turkey, which has been accused of flying its warplanes into Greek airspace. Pappas is on record opposing any F-16 sale to Turkey.

NATO member states are poised to vote individually in the months ahead on the question of including Sweden and Finland in the alliance. Turkey’s president agreed to that proposition at a NATO summit this month, but the Turkish parliament has yet to vote. All 30 NATO member states must agree on the expansion, which is meant to bolster defenses against Russia.

Any congressional block on the F-16 sale could increase the odds of a no vote on NATO expansion in Ankara, though the amendment allows a U.S. presidential waiver on national security grounds.

Another hot-button issue in American foreign relations is Washington’s ties to Saudi Arabia. President Joe Biden, after once labeling the government there, run by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “a pariah,” now is enlisting Saudi help in easing energy inflation.

If the Rules Committee allows it, the House could consider an amendment by Democrat Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia that would suspend certain weapons sales to Saudi Arabia for 120 days at a time for a three-year period, unless Biden can certify that Saudi Arabia is not engaging in listed human rights abuses. The amendment calls for a number of other reports on the Saudi government’s humanitarian record.

Capital power clash

An amendment by District of Columbia Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, would give the D.C. mayor the same control over the D.C. National Guard that governors have over their state National Guard units.

The D.C. Guard is controlled now at all times by the president, an arrangement that became controversial when former President Donald Trump used the D.C. Guard to quell protests against police violence in 2020 without having to ask the mayor, and again on Jan. 6, 2021, when the mayor had no authority to call in the D.C. Guard to respond to the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Meanwhile, a number of amendments were filed, mostly by Democrats, to more strictly regulate so-called forever chemicals, known by the acronym PFAS. Such chemicals are suspected to have endangered the drinking water on or near many U.S. military bases.

Also potentially up for debate is an amendment by Texas Republican Beth Van Duyne that would enable the Defense Department to roll over no more than 10 percent of fiscal 2023 operations and maintenance funds into fiscal 2024 — a one-time fix to a limitation on Pentagon flexibility to use its funds.

Familiar refrains

The House may hear a number of debates that have occurred repeatedly in recent years.

The coronavirus pandemic still plagues the world, though in many places not in as lethal form as before, and Congress is still a forum for passionate debates over the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and the fairness of federal vaccine mandates.

Several GOP-sponsored amendments, supported by Paul Gosar of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida and others, have been offered to the House NDAA that would disallow COVID-19 vaccine mandates for Defense Department civilians and military personnel.

Other amendments would bar terminations or other severe consequences for those who have refused to comply, absent an exemption, with vaccination orders. Such amendments were rejected in committee.

Also unlikely to be adopted are GOP amendments, one by Lauren Boebert of Colorado and another by Jackie Walorski of Indiana, that would bar sending any detainees from Guantánamo, a practice that presidents of both parties have engaged in, though the countries the detainees can be sent to are limited by law.

Meanwhile, left-leaning Democrats led by Barbara Lee of California hope for a vote on amendments to cut the bill’s total authorization amount.

One amendment would slash $100 billion from the defense budget authorization, while another would cut out the $37 billion the committee added above the amount that the chairman, Washington Democrat Adam Smith, had wanted.

Smith’s original mark largely mirrored the amount of money Biden had wanted to see authorized.

A number of members on both sides of the aisle support amendments that would terminate aging authorizations to use military force in Iraq and Afghanistan. These have never become law after more than a decade of efforts.

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