The Senate on Thursday night approved a largely bipartisan defense policy bill, teeing up what is expected to be a bitter negotiation with the House, where hard-right Republicans muscled through a vastly different version of the $886 billion package loaded with divisive provisions rejected by most senators.
The vote was 86 to 11.
Leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who drafted the legislation, promptly issued a joint statement hailing what they called a “forward-looking” plan and indicating they were “hopeful” that forthcoming talks with the House would yield a final bill “that puts our national defense on a path toward improving our deterrent capabilities.”
In the weeks to come, the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-controlled House must reconcile their sharpest differences — deciding, for example, whether the final bill will include hard-right provisions to roll back Pentagon policies on abortion access and gender-affirming care — or risk failing to pass a National Defense Authorization Act for the first time in more than six decades.
Democrats in both chambers have said the GOP measures are non-starters. It’s unclear whether President Biden would veto any bill that attempts to roll back the Pentagon’s abortion policy.
The looming showdown on Capitol Hill will mark an extraordinary test for Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who pushed through the House bill despite complaints — from moderate Republicans as well as Democrats — that he allowed what began as a bipartisan process to be hijacked by the party’s most rebellious and aggrieved members. The bill passed there 219-210, carried over the finish line by a razor-thin Republican majority after an acrimonious battle led to only four House Democrats voting for it, all from competitive swing districts and facing outsize political pressure to do right by the troops.
The political bickering has cast a long shadow over what military advocates consider must-pass legislation as the NDAA sets Pentagon policy and guides spending for the year ahead.
Like the House bill, the Senate’s package authorizes greater spending to improve weapons technology, military partnerships and deterrence measures in the Indo-Pacific, with an eye toward countering a perceived growing threat from China. It authorizes a 5.2 percent pay raise for service members and other Defense Department employees. And it chips away at the resources authorized for the Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) measures — an irksome shift for Democrats, but one that some believe is likely to fall off the table in negotiations.
The Senate version also extends the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) — the program through which the Pentagon provides weapons and training assistance to support Ukraine’s military as it battles back Russia’s invasion — through fiscal year 2027.
Once talks between the House and the Senate begin, “We’ll have the upper hand,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) predicted during an interview with The Washington Post’s editorial board earlier this week. “… Because, what: You’re not going to do a defense bill over transgender and abortion, House guys? I mean, come on. This is about defending the nation … I don’t think the R’s are going to walk away from the table if they can’t get resolution on two culture-war issues to their satisfaction.”
Asked earlier Thursday how the Senate’s Republican negotiators would approach reconciliation talks with their House counterparts, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to answer.
It remains to be seen, too, whether congressional appropriators will fund the policy plan. The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved defense spending in line with the price tag attached to the NDAA, but that too will see amendments and negotiations going forward.
Senate leaders from both sides of the aisle touted the NDAA’s bipartisan support. “The contrast is glaring,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said from the floor, comparing the Senate’s policy plan to its counterpart in the House, where he said “House Republicans are pushing partisan legislation that has zero chance of passing.”
“House Republicans,” he added, “should look to the Senate to see how things get done.”
But the NDAA’s traditional bipartisanship has lost some of its sheen in the Senate as well.
Overshadowing the defense bill this year is an ongoing effort by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) to block hundreds of military promotions — including a new commandant for the Marine Corps — until the Pentagon agrees to rescind its policy of reimbursing the travel costs for servicewomen who cannot obtain an abortion in the state where they are stationed. The Biden administration enacted the program after the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that protected for nearly 50 years the right to terminate a pregnancy.
Tuberville’s gambit has enraged Senate Democrats and many of his Republican colleagues, who in private have urged him to end his blockade and instead debate the abortion policy as part of the NDAA’s amendment process.
“That’s how we resolve policy differences around here. Not by taking hostage the entire leadership corps of our military,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said in a floor speech Wednesday.
Tuberville has said that his colleagues are welcome to hold individual votes for each officer that the military has recommended for promotion — a proposal that would frustrate the typical process of voting on groups of promotions all at one time. Congressional analysts say that doing so would use up so much time that the Senate would have difficulty passing other legislation this year.
“Yes, every senator has enormous power,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said on the floor Wednesday, accusing Tuberville of abusing his Senate privileges. “I could probably block the defense bill this week, if I wanted to. But I won’t. And you know why? Because I’m not a maniac.”
Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University, said the military remains “the one institution that the public still has high confidence in, as a general rule,” at a time when public confidence in other institutions has sunk dramatically. And for that reason, “it’s a crucially important symbolic ground for the culture war.” At the same time, that such partisanship has now tainted defense policymaking risks eroding public confidence, he said.
A series of bipartisan amendments made it into the Senate bill, such as a provision that would require congressional sign-off for the president to be able to leave NATO — a maneuver designed to stymie any effort by Donald Trump, should he win a second term next year, to withdraw the United States from the transatlantic military alliance. Trump mused about doing so throughout his presidency.
Lawmakers also approved provisions that aim to improve monitoring of private U.S. investments in certain sensitive technologies in China and expand authorities’ ability to monitor and potentially block Chinese-affiliated purchases of U.S. farmland.
“I think it’s fair to say the colossus that is America has finally awakened from its slumber and realized what a challenge China is to us and world peace,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said on the floor, speaking about an amendment he co-sponsored with Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).
More-partisan proposals, such as a push by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to limit Ukraine assistance, were quashed. Backroom horse-trading left other amendments — including the widely bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Act to provide a pathway to citizenship for the tens of thousands of Afghans evacuated to the United States when the war there ended — on the cutting-room floor.
“I’m deeply disappointed and frustrated that we had no vote on it,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has pushed for the legislation for over a year. “The opposition was somewhat irrational and unfounded,” he said, but “we may have other vehicles to get it done.”
Tyler Pager contributed to this report.