WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted 89-8 to pass a $700 defense policy bill for 2018 that would exceed President Donald Trump’s budget request and break statutory caps on defense spending.
The Senate on Monday passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act that exceeds budget caps by $91 billion. It garnered support from all but four Democrats and all but three Republicans who voted.
Its passage adds pressure on Congress and the president to strike a deal that funds the federal government for 2018. Congress must ease the 2011 Budget Control Act caps or face an automatic across-the-board cut known as sequestration.
The bill surpasses the president’s $603 billion defense budget request, the $549 billion cap set by the BCA and the $696.5 billion House version, with which the Senate version must be reconciled before the NDAA’s final passage by Congress.
The House passed its annual defense authorization bill in July.
The Senate bill would authorize $640 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget, with $60 billion in budget-cap-exempt war funding. The House version authorizes $621.5 in base dollars and $75 billion in war funds.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., cast the NDAA as both the start of a military build-up and as the remedy to a readiness crisis wrought by budget instability, which itself was evidenced by a spate of military mishaps recently, he said.
“The decision of the Committee on Armed Services to authorize these additional resources was unanimous and bipartisan, and it is a significant statement on the troubling state of our military today,” McCain said. “My friends, for too long, our nation has asked our men and women in uniform to do too much with far too little. Much of the blame lies over the last administration, but we in Congress cannot escape responsibility.”
The White House did not threaten to veto the measure or, in a statement on the bill earlier this month, criticize it for surpassing caps. The statement did jab at the Obama administration for enacting “harmful cuts to defense spending.”
Defense authorization conferees from the House and Senate must reconcile their chambers’ competing versions. Aside from the funding differences, the Senate bill opposes the House bill’s proposed Space Corps, a service branch devoted to space.
The Senate bill instead establishes a new DoD chief information warfare officer, who would serve as principal cyber adviser to the defense secretary and the principal DoD space adviser. Intended to grant an individual the power to set priorities in all three domains, it may compete with the House NDAA’s proposed Space Corps.
The bill proposes 24 more Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighters, ten more Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets, five more Navy ships and end-strength increases of 6,000 soldiers and 1,000 Marines.
McCain, aside from enumerating external threats from around the globe while arguing for more for defense, pointed to the recent deaths of service members during routine operations to make the case the military needs more money to climb out of a readiness crisis. The problem, he said, was the product of years of budget instability.
“Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis also warned us, saying, ‘We are no longer managing risk. We are now gambling,” McCain said. “We are gambling with the lives of the best among us, and we're now seeing the costs, the tragic but foreseeable costs of an overworked, strained force with aging equipment and not enough of it.”
Some 130 amendments were included, but debate on hundreds of controversial amendments — including protections for transgendered troops and a repeal of budget caps for defense and non-defense — was blocked when lawmakers could not agree on which amendments should get floor votes.
McCain said the impasse was over a package of amendments that included partial sequestration repeal, from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; one to prohibit indefinite detention of terrorism suspects from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah; one to protect the defense supply chain from foreign goods from Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and one to protect defense medical research programs, from Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
There was one vote on a controversial amendment. The Senate tabled a measure from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to sunset America’s current war authorizations.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.