Senate sends $858 billion defense bill to Biden’s desk


The Senate on Thursday passed the annual defense authorization bill, sending the $858 billion measure to President Biden’s desk for signature just before the year-end deadline.

The measure, formally known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, 83-11. 

It provides $45 billion more for defense than called for in Biden’s budget, including allocating $817 billion to the Department of Defense and $30 billion to the Department of Energy. 

Thursday’s vote caps weeks of wrangling over floor timing and controversial policy changes, such as language demanded by conservative Republicans to end the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which has been in place since August of 2021. 

It marks the 61st year in a row that Congress has passed the defense bill on time, a notable achievement given the legislative gridlock that has reigned on Capitol Hill in recent years. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) cheered the passage of the bill after months of negotiation, calling it “the most significant vote of the year.” 

“I’ve said it before and I’m not the only one saying it — the world is a more dangerous place than I’ve ever seen before in my lifetime,” he said.

The bill is named after retiring Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel. 

The Biden administration earlier this week criticized the vaccine mandate repeal as “a mistake” but the president is still expected to sign the legislation when it reaches his desk. 

Senators approved the legislation after voting down an amendment sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to enact permitting reform for energy projects and another sponsored by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to require the military to rehire and provide back-pay to service members forced out of work because of vaccine non-compliance. 

Both amendments needed 60 votes to pass. 

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asked for a vote on his amendment to cap fees charged by trial lawyers in cases representing Marines who became ill because of water contamination at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina 

He later withdrew it because he expected it to fail but pledged  to work with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, on a compromise before the end of the year.

Conservatives won a major victory by successfully pressing Democrats to accept language ending the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. 

“I am so pleased that the NDAA language reflects what we have sought to do,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who pushed for the repeal. 

She hailed it as a “major win” and noted that every service branch has struggled to meet their recruiting goals this year. More than 8,400 active-duty service members have been pushed out of the military for not getting COVID-19 shots, Blackburn said. 

Passage of the defense bill is a victory for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who identified it as a top priority in the lame-duck session. 

“I’ve spent all week discussing ways this legislation will help our armed forces and national security professionals, safeguard our homeland and keep adversaries like Russia on their back feet,” McConnell said Thursday ahead of the bill’s passage.

“The NDAA is only a first step toward the investments, modernization and stronger strategies that we need to compete and to win against rivals who don’t wish us well, but it is a crucial first step.”

McConnell and other Republicans criticized Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) for waiting so late in the year to bring the bill to the floor. 

“Republicans spent months urging the Democratic majority not to neglect this year’s National Defense Authorization Act; not to leave our Armed Forces to the last minute. Five months ago, I called on our colleagues to process the defense bill as soon as possible.” 

The Senate passage comes exactly a week after the House passed the bill, which lays out how the Defense Department allocates hundreds of billions of dollars toward weapons programs and provides a 4.6 percent raise in service members’ salaries.

It authorizes $163 billion for procurement, compared to the $144 billion requested in Biden’s budget; $139 billion for research and development, compared to the $130 billion requested by Biden; and $279 billion for operation and maintenance, compared to the $271 billion requested by Biden.

In addition, it authorizes $211 for personnel and health, roughly the same that Biden requested; $19 billion for military construction and $30 billion for defense related nuclear programs. 

The bill includes intended military aid to other countries, such as $10 billion to Taiwan through 2027 and another $800 million in security assistance for Ukraine.

It allocates $6 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative, a program initiated in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea to increase the readiness of U.S. forces in Europe to deter further aggression. 

It reforms the Uniform Code of Military Justice to give the special trial counsel jurisdiction over sexual harassment offenses and requires investigators outside the immediate chain of command to investigate harassment complaints.

Republicans defeated two policy riders that Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wanted to add to the defense bill, Manchin’s permitting reform proposal and the SAFE Banking Act, which would prohibit federal regulators from penalizing financial institutions that work with legitimate cannabis-related businesses. 

McConnell said last week that attempts to add those provisions were “obstructing” passage of the defense bill and dismissed the proposals as “a grab bag of miscellaneous pet priorities.” 

Other Republicans criticized Manchin’s permitting reform bill from taking power away from Public Utility Commissioners by giving authority to federal regulators to pick the sites of electric transmission lines. 

Passage of the NDAA leaves the omnibus spending package as the last remaining item of must-pass legislation to finish before the Christmas break and the end of the 117th Congress. 

McConnell on Tuesday set a deadline of Dec. 22 to finish the omnibus and said he would support a stop-gap spending measure punting spending decision into 2023 if it’s not done by then. 

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