NotedDC

What’s in and out of the House defense bill

Associated Press/Ted S. Warren
Staff Sgt. Travis Snyder, left, receives the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine given at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, Dec. 16, 2020, south of Seattle.

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Lawmakers from both parties have wrangled over what to include or omit from the annual defense policy bill, considered a must-pass piece of legislation by year’s end.

The House passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on  Thursday in a 350-80 vote. Now it’s on to the Senate.

WHAT’S IN (so far): The bill supports a topline budget of $847 billion in defense spending, plus $10.6 billion for “Defense-related Activities Outside NDAA Jurisdiction.” That’s $45 billion above what President Biden requested.

It also includes language ending the vaccine mandate for service members, which House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said was necessary for the bill to pass. Our colleagues present a number of perspectives on that here.

WHAT’S OUT: For one, Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) permitting reform proposal, which he’s seeking to revive.

Manchin asked Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to pull the proposal from a continuing resolution in September when it was clear it had insufficient support.

The West Virginia Democrat, who’s up for reelection in 2024, said the Senate should add a modified version of his proposal as an amendment to the NDAA.

The changes to Manchin’s proposal “appear aimed at garnering GOP support,” our colleagues wrote in The Hill’s Energy & Environment newsletter. (See their latest for more on permitting reform.)

ALSO OUT: A marijuana-related package including banking and record expungement provisions, which a bipartisan group of senators supported and Schumer took the lead on. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was a vocal critic.

LAST-MINUTE DELAY: A House vote was expected Wednesday, but the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) pushed for simultaneous movement on a voting rights bill, and the House delayed for further discussion. 

“The House last year had already passed the voting rights bill, named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.),” our colleagues Mike Lillis and Mychael Schnell reported. “But the Senate never took it up, and CBC leaders were seeking a way to force a vote in the upper chamber, even knowing the measure likely to fail.” 

The House ended up voting for the NDAA under suspension of the rules, expediting a vote and requiring two-thirds support. 

WHERE BIDEN STANDS: At a press conference Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the White House opposes the vaccine mandate removal. Asked if Biden would veto the NDAA because of it, Jean-Pierre said Biden “is going to look at the NDAA in its entirety and make his judgment on that.” 

Jean-Pierre said Monday that Biden supports adding the permitting reform proposal to the NDAA. On Wednesday, she said the White House “will continue to work with Congress and find the best path forward so we can … enact this bill.” 

The defense bill provides a blueprint on how funds will be allocated, though Congress must still pass funding — and passage of an omnibus bill before the end of the year remains uncertain.

This is NotedDC, we’re The Hill’s Amée LaTourLiz Crisp and Jesse Byrnes.

📨 Have a tip or something you want to share? Email us: ecrisp@thehill.com and alatour@thehill.com.

Let’s jump in.

294 days later, Griner released 

WNBA star Brittney Griner is out of Russia — part of a prisoner exchange the Biden administration brokered in recent days.

During an address on the release Thursday morning, President Biden said Griner would be home in the next “24 hours,” but no specific timeline has been released. 

  • The release of Griner, after 10 months behind bars in Russia over a drug charge, almost immediately sparked backlash among Biden critics who questioned why there was a prisoner swap for her, but the administration hasn’t been able to secure a release for former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.
  • Whelan has been held in Russia for four years on accusations of espionage that he denies and Biden aides say are unfounded. 

GOP RESPONSE: “Celebrities over veterans?” tweeted Rep. Mike Waltz (Fla.), one of numerous Republicans to pan the prisoner swap.

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) wrote: “[Biden] just traded an enemy who smuggles guns and helps shoot Americans for an American who smuggles drugs and shoots basketballs, all while a former US Marine, Paul Whelan, rots in a Russian prison. Let that sink in.”

Biden acknowledged that Russia wasn’t willing to include Whelan in the deal and negotiating his release has proven more difficult.

WHAT RUSSIA GOT: In exchange for Griner’s release, the White House agreed to release Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” who has been in American custody for 12 years. 

“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”

WHELAN TALKS: CNN spoke with Whelan by phone after the announcement of Griner’s release, and he acknowledged that he is treated differently than other prisoners because of the spying accusations. He said he’s happy for Griner but pleaded for the Biden administration to continue efforts to bring him home “regardless of the price” the country may have to pay. 

“This is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly,” he said. “My bags are packed. I’m ready to come home.” 

THE HILL INTERVIEW

Captain ‘Sully’ pushes airlines over passenger safety

Federal regulators have recently weighed establishing a minimum seat size on airplanes, which lawmakers argue is necessary to manage passenger numbers in order to safely evacuate aircraft in the event of an emergency.

While groups representing U.S. airlines have opposed implementing new regulations — seat sizes and the distance between rows have grown smaller over the years — one aviation leader argues there’s a lift for companies that back such a move.

“I think it’s not only a moral imperative but there’s a strong business case for quality and safety,” Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger told The Hill in a phone interview.

“For those who say it’s too hard or too expensive or too time consuming — I will tell them that having been an Air Line Pilots Association accident investigator and over my 30-year career having had to investigate three fatal accidents … it’s clear to me that when it comes to costs, nothing is more expensive than an accident,” he said.

A ‘constant tension’: Sullenberger, portrayed by Tom Hanks in the eponymous film, acknowledged “that constant tension between what I call production pressures and safety,” but he argued the aviation industry can no longer judge its safety standards solely by the absence of accidents.

“We have an obligation to keep on learning and keep on improving,” he said.

New legislation: Sullenberger is backing a bill introduced Thursday by Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) calling on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take into account real-life scenarios and diverse passenger demographics when simulating evacuations.

Regulations require planes be able to safely evacuate in 90 seconds. But federal officials have yet to say if they will act on establishing a minimum seat size on planes after Congress directed them to do so when renewing funding in 2018.

The FAA solicited public comments on the topic this fall. Lawmakers introduced their legislation ahead of the agency’s reauthorization in 2023.

How situations can go sideways fast: “The certification rules really need to do a better job of reflecting the real world,” Sullenberger told The Hill.

Sullenberger spoke of how landing a passenger jet on the Hudson River in 2009 — minutes after geese flew into both engines — tested emergency procedures.

“I’m one of the few people on the planet who’s not only had to evacuate an airplane but had to command an evacuation as the captain,” he noted.

“It’s really important that we get this right.”

Sullenberger said aviation professionals feel “a deep obligation, a calling, to do the very best for their passengers.”

“I think lawmakers and administrators and those in FAA need to feel and act on that same obligation.”

– Jesse Byrnes

Congress sends same-sex marriage bill to Biden

With mere weeks left until Republicans take control of the House, Congress has passed a bipartisan measure to enshrine protections for same-sex marriage and interracial unions in federal law.

The legislation now heads to President Biden, who said he will sign it.

The bill, dubbed the Respect for Marriage Actpassed the House in a 258-169-1 vote on Thursday. Thirty-nine Republicans joined all Democrats in favor. The Senate previously passed it in a 61-36 vote, with 12 Republicans joining Democrats.

NOTABLE: This is likely the last major piece of legislation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) two-decade stretch leading House Democrats.

Same-sex marriage was legalized nationally with a Supreme Court ruling in 2015, but Congress has never put it into law. A recent Supreme Court ruling that upended abortion rights prompted debates over whether marriage could be next if a legal challenge makes it to the conservative-leaning court.

The Respect for Marriage Act would require that states recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

THE OPPOSITION: While some GOP opponents argued the legislation was unnecessary, others took aim at its support for same-sex marriage. Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) joined some referring to the bill as the “Disrespect for Marriage Act.”

“This unnecessary, misguided legislation not only disrespects the importance of traditional marriage for the health of a family but also disrespects people and organizations of faith who have the Constitutional right to carry out their mission in accordance with their most deeply held beliefs,” she said, urging her colleagues to vote against the proposal.

🎖 PEARL HARBOR ANNIVERSARY

Wednesday was National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, marking the 81st anniversary of the Japanese attack that killed 2,403 service members and civilians on Dec. 7, 1941.  

The Pearl Harbor National Memorial livestreamed events held to honor veterans and survivors in Hawaii on its Facebook page

  • In a Facebook post, the memorial wrote of the generation that faced the attack: “Having lived through the Great Depression, they would have to rely on ingenuity, perseverance, and collaboration to overcome the most devastating war within recorded history.”
  • “Once the Allied Victory was won, veterans and civilians would take the experiences and lessons they had endured to face the next challenges of striving to overcome hardened bias and inequality as they sought for peace and reconciliation in a changed world,” it continued.

President Biden met with World War II veterans who traveled to D.C. to attend events at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. 

Events at the Memorial included a wreath-laying ceremony and a program exploring the attack “from the different perspectives of both Hawaii and Washington, D.C.” 

🎥 VIRTUAL EVENT INVITE

“A More Perfect Union 2022” — Dec. 9, starting at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT

The Hill’s second annual multi-day festival continues Friday, focusing on “consensus builders.” No Labels chief strategist Ryan Clancy, former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), Convergence Center for Policy Resolution president and CEO David Eisner and more will join. RSVP now.

📦 BRIEFLY

Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine (D) is suing Amazon, alleging the company stole tips from delivery drivers and deceived consumers about who their money would benefit. The lawsuit accuses the shipping giant of lying to consumers about the tipping process for Amazon Flex drivers.

A new poll first shared with The Hill has found LGBTQ Americans are bracing for increased legislative attacks on reproductive rights and access to gender-affirming health care in the coming year.

Singer Celine Dion has revealed that she’s been diagnosed with stiff-person syndrome, a rare neurological disorder. The condition is forcing her to postpone shows that had been slated for next spring. 

QUOTABLE

“You’ve done nothing — you’ve made the border worse.”

– Rep. Mayra Flores (R-Texas) in a message to Democrats during a news conference.

NUMBER TO KNOW

117

Number of days the House is slated to be in session in 2023, according to a scheduling calendar released by incoming House GOP Leader Steve Scalise (La.).

ONE MORE THING

Christmas in the District 

Congress hasn’t yet packed up for lawmakers to head home to their districts for the holidays (a Dec. 16 funding deadline looms) but those sticking around the District this year can find plenty of festive ways to get into the holiday spirit.

  • The downtown holiday market runs through Dec. 23.
  • The Smithsonian National Zoo‘s annual “Zoolights” event runs through Dec. 30
  • Nationals Park has been transformed into a winter wonderland for Enchant, which will run through Jan. 1.
  • And the lighting of the National Chanukah Menorah will take place Dec. 18 at the Ellipse by the White House. President Biden, Vice President Harris and politicians will be on hand.

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We’ll see you next week.

Tags Biden Brittney Griner Brittney Griner Charles Schumer joe manchin Joe Manchin Karine Jean-Pierre Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi NDAA Paul Whelan Respect for Marriage Act Sully Sullenberger Tammy Baldwin Tammy Duckworth

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