Politics

House Prepares to Pass $768 Billion Defense Policy Bill

WASHINGTON — The House raced on Tuesday to pass a $768 billion defense policy bill after lawmakers abruptly dropped proposals that would have required women to register for the draft, repealed Congress’s 2002 authorization of the Iraq war and imposed sanctions for a Russian gas pipeline, in a late-year drive to salvage a bipartisan priority.

The legislation, unveiled just hours before a planned vote, put the Democratic-led Congress on track to increase the Pentagon’s budget by roughly $24 billion above what President Biden had requested, angering antiwar progressives who had hoped that their party’s control of the White House and both houses of Congress would lead to cuts to military programs after decades of growth.

Instead, the measure provides significant increases for initiatives intended to counter China and bolster Ukraine, as well as the procurement of new aircraft and ships, underscoring the bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill for continuing to spend huge amounts of federal money on defense initiatives, even as Republicans lash Democrats for spending freely on social programs.

Because it authorizes an annual pay increase for the nation’s troops as well as new Pentagon programs, the defense policy bill has typically been considered a must-pass item, and lawmakers have prided themselves on doing so annually without fail for decades. The House and Senate usually craft and pass their own bills separately, considering dozens of amendments along the way, before negotiating a compromise version.

But this year, that process collapsed in an end-of-year spasm of dysfunction unusual even for a legislative body that is plagued by partisan paralysis.

The Senate neither passed its own bill nor considered any amendments, denying lawmakers the chance to vote on a number of foreign policy issues. Instead, top congressional officials huddled behind closed doors in recent days to cobble together a bill that could quickly pass both chambers.

In its final form, the legislation would authorize a 2.7 percent pay increase for the nation’s military, call for an independent commission to scrutinize the war in Afghanistan, and prohibit the Pentagon from procuring items produced with forced labor from the Xinjiang region of China, where as many as one million Uyghurs have been detained in work camps.

It also contains a painstakingly negotiated compromise to strip military commanders of authority over sexual assault cases and many other serious crimes, placing them under independent military prosecutors in a move that had long been opposed by military leaders and presidents. Both Mr. Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III endorsed the shift earlier this year.

Other significant changes were left out in the interest of swift passage. Lawmakers tossed out a measure requiring women to register with the Selective Service System for the first time in American history, a step endorsed by a national commission last year that found expanding eligibility for the selective service would be a crucial step toward increasing both gender equity and readiness in the military.

Some conservatives in Congress had long resisted the idea, arguing that it was immoral to force women to fight the nation’s wars, and a bloc of House Republicans had threatened to withhold their support for the bill if it was included. Their votes were needed because of opposition among liberals, who refused to endorse such a large defense budget.

Leaders of the armed services committees also excluded a House-passed bill to repeal the 2002 law authorizing the invasion of Iraq, which has been stretched by multiple administrations to justify military action around the world. Repealing the authorization was expected to win broad bipartisan backing in the Senate.

Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia and one of the lead authors of the measure, told reporters he was “confident” that the issue would get a vote in the “near future,” citing a commitment from party leaders.

Also missing from the final legislation was a provision passed by the House that directed Mr. Biden to impose sanctions over the Nord Stream 2, an undersea gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany that lawmakers fear will give Moscow undue leverage over Central Europe.

“This sends the worst possible message to Ukraine as Putin’s forces stand at its doorstep,” said Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, on the decision to pull the language from the bill. “So much for Congress reasserting its role in foreign policy.”

The defense policy bill was expected to pass the closely divided House by a narrow margin, with a bloc of liberals voting “no.”

In September, the House Armed Services Committee approved its version of the legislation, after over a dozen moderate Democrats on the panel joined Republicans in pushing it through.

The bill still includes a slew of provisions requiring that the administration provide more reports to Congress on Afghanistan, including one requesting regular briefings that assess the surveillance and reconnaissance capacity of the United States to conduct counterterrorism operations there.

In addition to authorizing the creation of a commission to scrutinize the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the measure would bar defense contractors and former cabinet secretaries from serving on it.

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