Overnight Defense & National Security — Senate passes sweeping defense bill

It's Wednesday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

The Senate has passed a sweeping defense policy bill on an 88-11 vote, ending a weekslong standoff that had stalled work on the legislation.

We’ll share what’s in it and the compromises made to get to this point, plus details of a new letter five state governors sent to the Pentagon chief and next steps in a stalled F-35 deal to the UAE. 

For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. Write to me with tips: emitchell@thehill.com.

Let’s get to it.

NDAA heads to Biden’s desk  

<span class=President BidenJoe BidenFox News reporter says Biden called him after 'son of a b----' remark Peloton responds after another TV character has a heart attack on one of its bikes Defense & National Security — Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on high alert MORE delivers remarks prior to signing an executive order on delivering the government services and experience the American people expect and deserve during a ceremony in the Oval Office on Dec. 13, 2021." width="645" height="363" data-delta="2" /> 

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which sets spending top lines and policy for the Pentagon, passed the House last week and, with the Senate’s approval, now goes to President Biden’s desk, where he’s expected to sign it. 

​​“For the past six years, Congress worked on a bipartisan basis to pass an annual defense authorization act without fail. ... With so many priorities to balance, I thank my colleagues for working hard over these last few months, both in committee and off the floor, to get NDAA done,” Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerVoting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? Forced deadline spurs drastic tactic in Congress Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans MORE (D-N.Y.) said.

Some figures: The initial vote on the measure was 89-10, but in an unusual move Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerDespite Senate setbacks, the fight for voting rights is far from over Small ranchers say Biden letting them get squeezed Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans MORE (D-N.J.) came back to the Senate floor to ask to switch his vote from "yes" to "no." 

The $768.2 billion bill provides $740 billion for the Department of Defense. Both chambers agreed to add $25 billion more than what President Biden requested for fiscal 2022 for the defense budget.

What else it includes:  It also includes $27.8 billion for defense-related activities in the Department of Energy and another $378 million for other defense-related activities.

The defense bill also includes a major overhaul of how the military prosecutes certain crimes, including military sexual assault. The bill strips commanders of most of their authority, but they would still be allowed to conduct trials, pick jury members, approve witnesses and grant immunity.

Disagreements: The changes were not enough for Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandTlaib blasts Biden judicial nominee whose firm sued environmental lawyer The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Former aide says she felt 'abandoned' by Democrats who advanced Garcetti nomination as ambassador to India MORE (D-N.Y.), who had been pressing to completely remove commanders from the chain of command in these instances and let independent military prosecutors handle them.

Gillibrand has called for a vote on her original proposal, arguing that the authority the commander still has under the NDAA does not bring about true independence.

Compromises: As part of the final agreement, lawmakers dropped a provision from the bill that would have required women to register for the selective service. The provision had garnered pushback from some Republicans, who didn’t want to require women to register, while some progressives pushed for ending the draft altogether. 

The bill also does not include a deal to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Iraq War authorizations worked out by Sens. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Manchin, Sinema join GOP to sink filibuster change for voting bill Desperate Dems signal support for cutting Biden bill down in size MORE (D-Va.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungBipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Democrats return with lengthy to-do list MORE (R-Ind.). A failure to reach a larger agreement on the amendments that would be considered to the legislation torpedoed the Iraq War provisions. The setback effectively punts the issue to 2022, even though the Kaine-Young deal had enough support to get past a filibuster. 

Read the full story here.


GOP asks to drop National Guard mandate


Five Republican governors are urging Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinDefense & National Security — Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on high alert Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on higher alert over Russia-Ukraine tensions Special Operations Command's top general tests positive for COVID-19 MORE to drop the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate for members of the National Guard.

In a letter dated Tuesday, the governors tell Austin that “setting punishment requirements” for refusing to be inoculated is “beyond your constitutional and statutory authority.”

“It’s unconscionable to think the government will go so far as to strip these honorable men and women of the nation’s top duties if they don’t comply,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who signed onto the letter, said in a statement. “They protect the very freedoms that the federal government apparently doesn’t believe they too deserve,” she continued.

Who signed on?: Reynolds was joined by Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon (R), Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R), Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) and Nebraska Gov. Pete RickettsPete RickettsNebraska's Republican governor backs primary challenger against GOP lawmaker Ricketts endorses Pillen in race to succeed him as Nebraska governor Pentagon goes on offense vs GOP on vaccine mandates MORE (R).

The Pentagon’s response: In a statement to The Hill, Pentagon press secretary John KirbyJohn KirbyDefense & National Security — Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on high alert Biden rushes to pressure Russia as Ukraine fears intensify Biden touts 'total unanimity' with European leaders after call on Russia-Ukraine MORE said, "We have received the letter from the five Governors and will respond in due course.”

Context: The letter is the latest development in the GOP pushback to the vaccine mandate, which began as a sparring match between the Pentagon and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R).

Stitt asked Austin to exempt his state’s National Guard from the mandate in early November. Shortly thereafter, Stitt appointed a new commander of the Guard, Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, who wrote a memo stipulating that no member of the guard is required to get vaccinated.

Earlier this month, Stitt sued the Pentagon to exempt his state’s guardsmen from mandate.  

DOD stands firm: Austin required vaccinations for the military in late August, but allowed each of the military services to implement the mandate.

In a memo late last month, Austin said all guardsmen who do not get vaccinated could face loss of pay, among other consequences.

Read the full story here.

Blinken: US ready to proceed with F-35 sale

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the U.S. is ready to proceed with a $23 billion sale of F-35 fighter jets and drones to the United Arab Emirates after the middle eastern nation said it would suspend talks.

“We remain prepared to move forward with both if that is what the Emiratis are interested in doing,” Blinken told reporters in Malaysia.

Paused talks: ​​A UAE official told Reuters on Tuesday that the nation would suspend talks over “technical requirements, sovereign operational restrictions, and cost/benefit analysis.”

The official added that the U.S. is still the UAE’s “preferred provider” of the weapons and that discussions “may be reopened in the future.”

What the deal includes: The deal included the UAE purchasing 50 F-35 Lightning II aircraft, as many as 18 MQ-9B unmanned aerial systems, and air-to-air and air-to-ground projectiles. 

Earlier issues: Blinken said the Biden administration wanted to make sure that that the US’ commitment to Israel’s military advantage was upheld. Under U.S. law, American is committed to ensuring the advantage, referred to as its “qualitative military edge.”

Israel was initially opposed to the UAE buying the F-35 fighter jets, but in October 2020 signaled that it wouldn’t oppose the deal.

An upcoming visit: Both US and UAE officials are set to meet at the Pentagon this week, during which the deal is expected to come up. 

Read the full story here.





That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. See you Thursday.