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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Congress passes contentious defense policy bill known as NDAA, sending it to Biden

Washington — The House passed a defense policy bill Thursday that authorizes the biggest pay raise for troops in more than two decades, but also leaves behind many of the policy priorities that social conservatives were clamoring for, making for an unusually divisive debate over what is traditionally a strongly bipartisan effort.

Lawmakers have been negotiating a final bill for months after each chamber passed strikingly different versions in July. Some of the priorities championed by social conservatives were a no-go for Democrats, so negotiators dropped them from the final product to get it over the finish line.

The bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, passed the House by a bipartisan vote of 310 to 118 in one of the chamber’s last acts before lawmakers leave for their holiday recess. The Senate had already voted to approve the measure on Wednesday night by a vote of 87 to 13. It now heads to President Biden’s desk for his signature.

Most notably, the bill does not include language blocking the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy or restricting gender-affirming health care for transgender service members and dependents. Republicans prevailed, however, in winning some concessions on diversity and inclusion training in the military. For example, the bill freezes hiring for such training until a full accounting of the programming and costs is completed and reported to Congress.

The bill sets key Pentagon policy that lawmakers will attempt to fund through a follow-up appropriations bill. Lawmakers were keen to emphasize how the bill calls for a 5.2% boost in service member pay, the biggest increase in more than 20 years. The bill authorizes $886 billion for national defense programs for the current fiscal year that began Oct. 1, about 3% more than the prior year.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the bill would ensure “America’s military remains state of the art at all times all around the world.”

The NDAA’s extension of FISA

The bill also includes a short-term extension of a surveillance program aimed at preventing terrorism and catching spies. But the program has detractors on both sides of the political aisle who view it as a threat to the privacy of ordinary Americans. Some House Republicans were incensed at the extension, which is designed to buy more time to reach a compromise.

The extension, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is a program that permits the U.S. government to collect without a warrant the communications of non-Americans located outside the country to gather foreign intelligence.

U.S. officials have said the tool, first authorized in 2008 and renewed several times since then, is crucial in disrupting terror attacks, cyber intrusions and other national security threats. It has produced vital intelligence that the U.S. has relied on for specific operations, such as the killing last year of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

But the administration’s efforts to secure reauthorization of the program have encountered strong bipartisan pushback. Democrats like Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who has long championed civil liberties, have aligned with Republican supporters of former President Donald Trump to demand better privacy protections for Americans and have proposed a slew of competing bills.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky unsuccessfully sought to keep the extension out of the defense bill. He argued that the extension would likely mean no reform to the surveillance program in the next year.

“That means that once again the intelligence agencies that ignore the constraints on their power will go unaddressed and unpunished, and the warrantless surveillance of Americans in the violation of the Bill of Rights will continue,” Paul said.

Enough opposition has developed within the GOP ranks that it has forced House Speaker Mike Johnson to tee up the defense policy bill for a vote through a process generally reserved for non-controversial legislation. Under that process, at least two-thirds of the House were required to pass the bill, but going that route avoided the prospect of a small number of Republicans blocking it through a procedural vote.

While such a process eased passage of the bill, it could hurt Johnson’s standing with some of the most conservative members in the House. It only takes a few Republicans to essentially grind House proceedings to a halt or even to end a speaker’s tenure, as former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy learned when eight Republicans joined with Democrats to oust him.

The White House called for swift passage of the defense bill, saying it “provides the critical authorities we need to build the military required to deter future conflicts while supporting the servicemembers and their spouses and families who carry out that mission every day.”

What else is in the NDAA?

Consideration of the bill comes at an especially dangerous time for the world, with wars taking place in Ukraine and the Middle East, and as China increasingly flexes its military might in the South China Sea.

On Ukraine, the bill includes the creation of a special inspector general for Ukraine to address concerns about whether taxpayer dollars are being spent in Ukraine as intended. That’s on top of oversight work already being conducted by other agency watchdogs.

“We will continue to stay on top of this, but I want to assure my colleagues that there has been no evidence of diversion of weapons provided to Ukraine or any other assistance,” the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, told lawmakers this week in advocating for the bill.

On China, the bill establishes a new training program with Taiwan, requires a plan to accelerate deliveries of Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Taiwan, and approves an agreement that enables Australia to access nuclear-powered submarines, which are stealthier and more capable than conventionally powered vessels.

Dozens of House Republicans are balking because the bill would keep in place a Pentagon rule that allows for travel reimbursement when a service member has to go out of state to get an abortion or other reproductive care. The Biden administration instituted the new rules after the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to an abortion, and some states have limited or banned the procedure.

Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama had for months blocked the promotion of more than 400 senior military leaders over his objections to the policy. He recently dropped most of his holds except for four-star generals and admirals, but many House Republicans were supportive of his effort and had included a repeal of the reimbursement policy in the House version of the defense bill.

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