House passes $696.5B defense policy bill

The House on Friday overwhelmingly passed a wide-ranging, $696.5 billion defense policy bill that goes far above President Trump’s budget request.  

Lawmakers voted 344-81 on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which broadly lays out policy and spending rules for the Pentagon and the military branches. 

The bill would authorize $621.5 billion for the Pentagon's base budget and Energy Department nuclear programs and $75 billion for war funding, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. In addition, the bill takes $10 billion in OCO dollars to pay for base budget needs.

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The bill has a few roadblocks ahead of it, with the biggest issue in the form of spending caps as stipulated by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). That act sets the Pentagon base budget as no higher than $549 billion. Lawmakers must either repeal the BCA or increase its budget caps.

Democrats pushed for the latter solution on the House floor prior to the bill passing.

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam SmithAdam SmithCongress, authorize fresh base closures to strengthen our military GOP lawmaker drops effort to force vote to extend DACA protections Trump officials brief lawmakers on North Korea MORE (D-Wash.) said it is “very possible that $72 billion of what is in this bill is going to disappear between now and the end of this year unless we address the broader issue of sequestration and budget caps.”

Despite the concerns, Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) touted the passage as a “really promising step in the right direction.”

“I have high confidence that the path we’re on will be the path we stay on,” Thornberry told reporters following the vote. “I understand there are several steps to go and we’ll take step by step in doing that, but I think and hope we have a budget on the floor pretty soon.”

The Trump administration has not threatened to veto the legislation so far. That's a break from the Obama administration which threatened vetoes on the defense policy bill every year. But the Trump White House did take issue with a number of provisions in the House NDAA.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the administration knocked provisions that would prevent a new round of base closures, establish a new branch of the military dedicated to space, limit an arms treaty with Russia, require congressional notification of cyberoperations and prevent recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea. 

The White also took issue with the way the bill separates $10 billion in OCO funding to pay for the base budget.

“The bill also proposes using OCO to fund additional end strength, ships, and homeland defense,” the statement said. “Funding these enduring requirements in OCO would complicate the funding stability for associated outyear costs and runs contrary to the purpose of OCO.”

House Republicans were able to avoid several controversial debates in passing the bill, as the House Rules Committee earlier in the week kept out several disputed amendments.

Among those was a provision from Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) to pump the brakes on the plan to create the Space Corps, a new military branch under the Air Force.

Thornberry told reporters that lawmakers will continue to work on the issue. 

“I’m going to have a number of committee events in the coming weeks while we’re waiting to go to conference in the Senate to look at space issues, at different proposals,” he said. “I know that there are those in the Department of Defense who may not think it’s the best idea in the world. But ... if you look back in history it is incumbent upon Congress to make changes in the Pentagon that they cannot make for themselves.”

The biggest debate came out of Rep. Vicky Hartzler’s (R-Mo.) amendment, which would have barred Pentagon funding from going to any gender transition-related medical care, except for mental health services.

The body rejected the amendment on a 209-214 largely party-line vote, with Democrats calling it ignorant, mean-spirited and denigrating. Republicans, meanwhile, argued the Pentagon should not be spending its money on such medical care.

The House also voted down an amendment that would have taken out language preventing a new round of base closures — offered by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) — going against White House wishes. 

Republicans also rebuffed attempts from the Democrats to cut defense dollars.

The bill now goes to the Senate, expected to take up the legislation later this month. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved its version of the NDAA in late June.

That bill would authorize a total of $700 billion, split into $640 billion base defense funding and $60 billion for the war fund, also passing the BCA caps.

“There is widespread agreement that we live in a dangerous world, and we have damaged our military too much and that we have to make the necessary repairs,” Thornberry said. “I think it will happen.”

This story was updated at 2:56 p.m.