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House sends final NDAA to Biden’s desk

In the latest sign of the shifting partisan politics of national defense, more Democrats voted for the bill than Republicans who backed it

House Armed Services Chairman Mike D. Rogers, left, and ranking member Adam Smith attend the House and Senate committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2024 in the Dirksen Building on Nov. 29.
House Armed Services Chairman Mike D. Rogers, left, and ranking member Adam Smith attend the House and Senate committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2024 in the Dirksen Building on Nov. 29. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House voted Thursday to clear the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act and send it to President Joe Biden for his signature.

The conference report was considered under suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority. The bipartisan package easily cleared that threshold on a 310-118 vote.

In the latest sign of the shifting partisan politics of national defense, more Democrats — 163 — voted for the bill than the 147 Republicans who backed it. And the 73 GOP opponents eclipsed the 45 Democratic “no” votes.

The measure would authorize $886.3 billion in spending on U.S. national security programs, though the funds have yet to be appropriated. 

Thursday’s vote marked the 63rd consecutive fiscal year that the Congress has cleared the NDAA. The final vote came after a feisty floor debate that mainly centered on the bill’s temporary extension of a law allowing surveillance of foreigners’ communications. 

“Enacting an NDAA has never been more vital than today,” said Rep. Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “America and our allies face unprecedented and rapidly evolving threats– from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorist organizations throughout the world.”

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on Armed Services, told his colleagues: “You cannot oppose this bill and claim that you support the national security of this country.

Surveillance spat

Even with the overwhelming House support for the conference report, a coterie of ultraconservative members, largely composed of House Freedom Caucus members, voted against it. 

The bill had to be considered under suspension of the rules because House leaders were concerned they would not have majority backing for a rule to govern debate, given the opposition of those conservatives and of Democrats, who normally vote against GOP rules.

The primary concern of Republican critics was the conference report’s inclusion of a four-month extension of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes collection of foreigners’ communications data and sometimes sweeps up Americans’ conversations in the process. 

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said the Section 702 program makes the United States “more like China.” 

In response, Smith said the program needs to be overhauled but should not be terminated in the meantime before a new version can be enacted.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, said that, if the law were to expire, then “Americans and allies will die.”

Culture wars

Some GOP opponents were also concerned about the measure’s authorization of $600 million for training and equipping Ukraine’s military in fiscal 2024 and 2025. Many of them complained that the measure did not go as far as they wanted in seeking to overturn Defense Department programs aimed at diversifying the military. 

One of those critics, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, put his protest against the bill into the form of a motion for the House to adjourn just before the NDAA vote. That motion failed, 23-307. 

Rogers pushed back against his fellow Republicans on these issues. He enumerated all the ways the pending NDAA would do as conservatives have wanted on so-called culture war issues. Rogers noted provisions such as a cap on pay for diversity, equity and inclusion officials at the Pentagon and another that would provide a path back to military service for troops who were discharged due to refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Smith chided the Republican objectors for refusing to accept the need for compromise. 

“This is how life works,” Smith said at one point. “Apparently you don’t like democracy.”

Authorizing billions

The conference report is notable for authorizing a 5.2 percent pay raise for all military personnel, the biggest in two decades, as well as an increase in troops’ basic allowance for housing payments.

The bill would add $1.2 billion more than the White House requested for defense procurement and nearly $1 billion more for research, while proposing reductions of $1.2 billion for operations and $2.1 billion for personnel.

The NDAA would authorize $18.2 billion for military construction and housing projects, including $2 billion for family housing.

And it would approve $32.4 billion for atomic weapons activities at the Energy Department that fall under the jurisdiction of the Armed Services Committee. 

The conference report contains the authorization acts for U.S. intelligence programs and for the State Department. 

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