top of page
Search
  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

House passes defense bill, clearing it for Biden



The Senate on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023, overwhelmingly passed an $886 billion defense bill that would set Pentagon policy and provide a 5.2 percent pay raise for military personnel, defying the demands of hard-right Republicans who had tried and failed to attach a raft of deeply partisan restrictions on abortion, transgender care and diversity initiatives. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

By Karoun Demirjian


The House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed an $886 billion defense bill, clearing the measure for President Joe Biden after pushing past a revolt from the far right over the exclusion of restrictions they had sought to abortion access, transgender care, and racial diversity and inclusion policies at the Pentagon.


The 310-118 vote reflected the bipartisan nature of the bill, which earned the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans despite the vocal opposition of hard-liners, who staged a last-ditch rebellion on the House floor to try to block its passage. Biden is expected to sign the measure into law, maintaining Washington’s six-decade streak of approving military policy legislation on an annual basis.


This year’s defense bill authorizes a 5.2% pay increase for service members and civilian employees of the Pentagon. It also invests in a variety of measures to improve competition with Russia and China, including an expansion of regional partnerships in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, development of hypersonic weapons and upgrades to the nuclear arsenal.


The bill sets up a submarine deal at the heart of a new security partnership with Britain and Australia known as AUKUS, and directs hundreds of millions of dollars toward sending weapons to Ukraine and Israel. It does not settle the greater question of whether Congress will approve tens of billions of dollars in emergency funds for the two countries’ war efforts as part of a $110.5 billion spending bill that has stalled in Congress, amid a dispute between Republicans and Democrats about attaching measures to crack down on migration across the U.S. border with Mexico.


It would also extend into 2025 a program that allows the intelligence community to conduct warrantless surveillance of foreign individuals outside the United States. The program has come under fire because of how the FBI has handled the private messages of Americans.


“It takes compromise to move legislation in a divided government, and this bill is a good compromise,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the chair of the Armed Services Committee, said on the floor. “It’s laser-focused on deterring our adversaries, especially China.”


But many conservatives were outraged at the compromise, which jettisoned several social policy measures on cultural hot-button issues that they had sought. Over the summer, right-wing lawmakers pressured the House GOP into loading up the bill with measures to shutter the military’s offices of diversity, equity and inclusion; ban transgender health services; and outlaw drag shows on military bases.


The House-passed version also would have revoked a policy providing paid time off and transportation reimbursement to service members needing to travel long distances to obtain abortions or fertility care. The Pentagon adopted the abortion access policy after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, leading to a patchwork of laws around the country that could leave military personnel with unequal access to such services depending on where they were based.


The Senate bill included none of those provisions, and in bipartisan talks between the two chambers to resolve differences on the legislation, they were stripped out.


Soldiers are “frustrated by the state of affairs, when our military’s being turned into a social engineering experiment instead of being committed to its core function, which is defending this country,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, argued on the House floor Wednesday night, appealing to his colleagues to reject the compromise bill.


Seventy-three Republicans ultimately opposed the bill, along with 45 Democrats. But with strong support from both parties, proponents were able to muster the two-thirds majority necessary to speed it through the House under special fast-track rules for noncontroversial bills.


Democrats did accept some items from the GOP’s priority list as part of the bargain. The legislation places a salary cap on positions devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion training, which is expected to force a number of senior officials to be reassigned. It bans the teaching of critical race theory in military schools. It also sets up a review board to consider reinstating service members who were discharged for refusing to obey the military’s now-defunct COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and establishes a special inspector general to oversee how U.S. aid to Ukraine has been used.


“You cannot oppose this bill and claim that you support the national security of this country,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member of the armed services panel. “Because this bill represents that bipartisan compromise that we worked for to get a good bill to meet our national security needs.”


Opposition to the bill was also fueled by the last-minute addition of a provision extending into next year a warrantless surveillance program nearing its expiration date. The program, created under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, allows the government to conduct wiretaps on foreign targets outside the United States.


It has come under intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill, from both Republicans and Democrats, because communications of Americans in touch with those foreign targets are often collected during the wiretaps, and there is widespread evidence that FBI officials have improperly plumbed that information.


When Congress returns to Washington in January, the House is expected to resume a highly charged debate over whether and how to overhaul the program. Leaders have argued that the extension in the defense bill, which would push the program’s expiration date out to mid-April, is simply a patch to buy Congress more time to have that debate.


But the way Congress wrote the statute, even the short-term extension would enable the secret surveillance court to stretch the wiretapping authority to April 2025 — a fact that led conservative Republicans and many liberal Democrats, who have long warned of the dangers of the program, to call for rejecting the defense bill.


“It’s extremely, extremely important that we do everything we can to make sure that we do not pass a FISA out of this House that does not protect the American people,” Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Texas, argued on the House floor. “We cannot continue to allow them to spy on the American people, to surveil them, without a warrant.”


Proponents of the extension of surveillance powers argued that they must be preserved to protect the United States from terrorist attacks.


“By God, let’s reform it, but do not let it expire,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee. “If it expires, Americans and allies will die.”

22 views0 comments
bottom of page