House passes sweeping defense policy bill

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The House on Thursday passed its sweeping annual defense policy bill that would add billions of dollars to President Biden’s defense budget proposal, call for answers on failures in the war in Afghanistan and require women to register for the draft. 

The House easily approved its $778 billion fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in a bipartisan 316-113 vote Thursday night. Thirty-eight Democrats and 75 Republicans voted against the bill’s passage.

The House’s consideration of this year’s NDAA comes on the heels of the Biden administration’s messy exit from Afghanistan that saw Kabul collapse to the Taliban before the withdrawal was done, causing a scramble to evacuate as many U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans as possible before the last U.S. troops left at the end of August.

During the House Armed Services Committee’s markup of the bill earlier this month, the panel added several requirements for reports and briefings related to Afghanistan, including approving an amendment from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) that would establish an independent commission to study lessons learned from the entire 20-year war. 

Several more amendments aimed at oversight of the Afghan war and withdrawal were added this week on the House floor, including ones that would require the independent commission to report on human rights violations during the war, establish a special envoy for Afghan refugees, require an inspector general probe on the disposition of U.S. military equipment given to now-defunct Afghan forces, clarify eligibility for Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants and order an independent study on lessons learned about security cooperation, among others.

The $778 billion in funding that would be authorized by the NDAA is about $25 billion more than Biden proposed in his fiscal 2022 budget request, an increase that was approved when 14 House Armed Services Committee Democrats in vulnerable seats or with national security backgrounds sided with a Republican amendment during the committee’s consideration of the bill. 

Republicans have argued for months that Biden’s defense budget proposal, which was $13 billion more than the Trump administration’s final defense budget, was inadequate in the face of threats from China and Russia and was actually a cut when accounting for inflation. 

China’s “leapfrogging us in capabilities like AI and hypersonics, and they’re stepping up malign operations against America and our allies,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee who proposed the $25 billion increase, said on the House floor Wednesday. “What’s the president’s response to this? He proposes a budget that would cut funding for programs that we need to deter China.”

Progressive Democrats sought to claw back the increase on the House floor with an amendment offered by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) to revert back to the president’s proposal, as well as one from Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) to cut the defense budget by 10 percent. 

Both amendments were easily defeated, with Lee’s failing 142-286 and Pocan’s 86-332. Still, progressives viewed the outcome on Lee’s amendment, which a majority of Democrats supported, as a sign momentum is in their favor in their fight to slash the defense budget.

The NDAA is a policy bill, not a spending bill, meaning even if the final product has a top line of $778 billion, a separate appropriations bill with a matching dollar figure would also have to pass for the increase to become a reality. Still, the NDAA sets a benchmark for congressional budget talks going forward.

In a statement this week, the White House said it “strongly supports” enacting an NDAA this year, but expressed concern about several provisions in the House bill, including saying the Biden administration “opposes the direction to add funding for platforms and systems that cannot be affordably modernized given the need to prioritize survivable, lethal and resilient forces in the current threat environment and eliminate wasteful spending.” 

“The administration looks forward to continuing to work with Congress to set an appropriate and responsible level of defense spending to support the security of the nation,” the White House said in a statement of administration policy.

Though House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) opposed the funding increase, he called the overall bill “incredibly well put together” and an “excellent piece of legislation that will help meet the national security needs of our country.”

Democrats also took stabs during the NDAA floor debate at reining in presidential war powers and U.S. military entanglements, with mixed results.

An amendment from Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) that would have prohibited a U.S. troop presence in Syria unless Congress specifically authorizes it was rejected 141-286.

Successive administrations have justified the U.S. troops in Syria, which are helping fight ISIS, using the 2001 authorization for the use of military force that was passed in response to the 9/11 attacks.

The House did approve a pair of amendments aimed at restricting U.S. military support to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war. In February, Biden announced he was ending U.S. military support for “offensive” Saudi operations in Yemen, but stressed the United States remains committed to Saudi Arabia’s defense.

Since then, the Biden administration has been vague about how it defines offensive versus defensive operations. And critics hold that the U.S. support that has continued, such as aircraft maintenance, still enables offensive operations. 

One NDAA amendment from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), approved 219-207, would bar funding for “logistical support in the form of maintenance or the transfer of spare parts for aircraft that enable coalition strikes against the Houthis in Yemen,” as well as for “sharing intelligence for the purpose of enabling coalition strikes against the Houthis” and for the U.S. military to “command, coordinate, participate in the movement of, or accompany the regular or irregular military forces of the Saudi-led coalition forces.”

A narrower amendment from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), approved 223-204, would suspend U.S. sustainment and maintenance support to Saudi air force units found to be responsible for airstrikes that caused civilian casualties, with exceptions for territorial self-defense, counterterrorism operations and defense of U.S. government facilities or personnel.

The underlying NDAA that was passed Thursday also includes a provision, approved as an amendment during the Armed Services Committee’s debate, that would require women to register for the draft. 

The United States has not instituted a draft since the Vietnam War, but men still have to register with what’s officially known as the Selective Service System or face consequences such as losing access to federal financial aid for college. 

Conservatives have howled about “drafting our daughters,” but other lawmakers in both parties argue there’s no reason to exempt women from registering now since combat jobs were opened to them in 2016.

The bill also aims to tackle military sexual assault by removing the decision to prosecute sexual assault and related crimes from the chain of command, instead creating special victims prosecutors.

While some lawmakers have pushed to go further and remove all serious crimes from the chain of command, no amendments were offered either at the committee or the full House to do so. 

The House bill will need to be reconciled with the Senate’s version before it heads to the president’s desk for his signature.

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved its version of the NDAA in July, and the bill is expected to be considered by the full Senate in October.

Tags Adam Smith Barbara Lee Gregory Meeks Joe Biden Liz Cheney Mark Pocan Mike Rogers National Defense Authorization Act NDAA Ro Khanna

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