Senate passes $631B defense policy bill 98-0

The Senate on Tuesday passed a massive, wide-ranging $631 billion defense authorization bill that restores threatened Pentagon biofuels programs, issues new sanctions against Iran and changes U.S. detention policy for American citizens.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed the Senate unanimously 98-0 after the bill was debated for five days and hundreds of amendments were considered on the floor.

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The defense bill always enjoys broad bipartisan support, but the unanimous vote highlighted the lack of controversial issues this year that have made the bill sometimes divisive in past years.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said that the bill, which can tackle everything from military social policy to funding wars, had passed unanimously for only the second time in 51 years.

Before the vote for passage, Levin said he was “so proud our committee could keep the tradition of passing for 51 times a defense authorization bill.”

The Pentagon policy bill now heads to a House-Senate conference committee, where there are numerous differences that must be resolved.

The two bills were roughly $3 billion apart after the Senate's version passed committee, with the House bill coming in at a higher topline than the Senate-passed version.

The Senate’s bill reversed several policies that were in the House-passed bill, including restrictions on the military’s use of biofuels and plans for an East Coast missile defense site.

The House bill includes policies that the Democratic-led Senate is opposed to, particularly on social issues, such as a ban on same-sex ceremonies on military bases and language that says military chaplains can’t be punished for opposing same-sex marriage.

The Senate bill also included a new round of Iran sanctions, a “permanent ban” on transferring detainees from Guantánamo and prohibitions on the military detention of U.S. citizens.

Besides the conflicts with the House, the Senate’s defense bill reversed several policies the Obama administration requested in its Pentagon budget. The Senate measure rolled back proposed cuts to the Air National Guard and TRICARE fee increases, prohibited funding for the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) and included unrequested modernization funds for the M-1 Abrams tank.

The White House threatened to veto the bill over the changes to the Pentagon’s proposed budget as well as the restriction on using funds to transfer Guantánamo detainees.

The administration’s veto threat came before the bill’s Guantánamo transfer restrictions became even stronger after the Senate approved an amendment from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

Nonetheless, the differences between the House, Senate and administration are not likely to derail the bill that has passed for 50 straight years.

“While there are difference between the bills, there doesn’t appear to be anything that is insurmountable or will keep the conference committee from resolving the differences,” said a Republican House aide.

Levin and Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) both expressed confidence that the bill would get done despite the differences between the chambers. Levin said that the biggest challenge was time, and noted that the committees’ staffs have already started work on the final bill.

The Senate’s defense bill authorized about $525 billion Pentagon spending, $88.5 billion for the war in Afghanistan and $18 billion funding in the Energy Department.

The bill sets Pentagon policy and authorizes key funding priorities for the military, such as troop pay raises and funding for weapons programs.

While the defense bill did ultimately pass, it was a long and often-tenuous journey since the committee voted it through in May.

Levin and McCain urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for months to put the authorization bill on the floor, but he chose to wait until after the election.

Reid asked the Armed Services chiefs to get the bill done in three days during the lame-duck session, but objections from Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) — along with a flood of hundreds of amendments — prevented that from happening.

Coburn objected after his amendment, which barred a mental-illness diagnosis from preventing veterans from owning guns unless a judge orders it, was objected to. Coburn eventually dropped the objection, and is working with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to find a compromise on the amendment.

Levin joked with Reid after the bill had managed to pass in three days — because the Senate doesn’t count half-days.

The most contentious debate on the floor surrounded U.S. detention policies, which had sparked a month-long fight between lawmakers and the White House last year.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposed an amendment to bar military detention for U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism, a measure she said would correct the language in the 2012 bill.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and McCain and Ayotte have staunchly defended the necessity of military detention to help win the global war on terror. But McCain, Graham and Levin all wound up supporting Feinstein’s amendment — only after arguing that her amendment did in fact allow the detention of U.S. citizens to continue. The amendment passed 67-29.

On killing funding for MEADS, one of the issues over which the White House threatened a veto, Levin told reporters Tuesday that while it wasn’t “a done deal” to remain in the bill, the issue had broad support in Congress.

“We feel strongly that it’s a waste of money,” Levin said.

The Iran amendment, submitted by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), would tighten economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. It passed 94-0.

Menendez also passed an Iran sanctions amendment on last year’s defense authorization bill.

In the bill's final vote before passage, the Senate approved an amendment from McCain and others requiring a Pentagon report on options for a no-fly zone in Syria, which passed 92-6.

Updated at 7:06 p.m.