Senate passes final defense policy bill

by Tommy Grant

WASHINGTON ― The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed 87-13 a compromise annual defense policy bill, teeing up a final vote in the House on Thursday before it heads to the White House for the president’s signature.

The $874.2 billion National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2024 hews closely to President Joe Biden’s proposed budget request after Republican hawks agreed to cap defense spending as part of the May debt ceiling agreement.

“At a time of huge trouble for global security, doing the defense authorization bill is more important than ever,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor ahead of the vote. “Passing the NDAA enables us to hold the line against Russia, stand firm against the Chinese Communist Party and ensure America’s defenses remain state of the art at all times.”

The bill authorizes $300 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative in both FY24 and FY25. It also makes Pentagon Inspector General Robert Storch, currently the lead watchdog for Ukraine aid, a special inspector general to oversee assistance to the country.

But that’s a small fraction of the aid the Biden administration assessed Ukraine will need to continue fighting Russia next year, with its $61 billion Ukraine assistance request stalled amid Republican demands for immigration policy changes in the legislation.

Additionally, the NDAA bill includes all four key congressional authorizations needed to implement the trilateral AUKUS submarine-sharing agreement with Australia and the U.K. That includes authorization to transfer three Virginia-class attack submarines to Australia.

The bill also ensures the Virginia-class subs remaining in the U.S. inventory will have a new nuclear mission by institutionalizing the sea-launched cruise missile nuclear program at the Defense Department and National Nuclear Security Administration. Although the Biden administration sought to cancel this program over congressional objections, the White House has indicated the president will sign the bill into law.

The compromise NDAA also removed numerous provisions from the right-wing Freedom Caucus that prompted most House Democrats to abandon the typically bipartisan bill in protest of provisions that would have overturned the Pentagon’s abortion leave policy and barred the Defense Department from implementing Biden’s climate change executive orders, among others.

The absence of those provisions, particularly the ban on abortion leave, has prompted conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation’s lobbying arm, Heritage Action, to urge Republicans to vote against the bill.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., intends to put the NDAA on the House floor tomorrow under a procedural mechanism that will limit the Freedom Caucus’ ability to stall proceedings on the bipartisan legislation but nonetheless require two-thirds of House lawmakers to vote in favor of passage.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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