WASHINGTON ― Lawmakers involved in annual defense authorization negotiations finalized a sweeping deal late Monday that creates a new Space Force among other policies, but it dropped contentious border wall restrictions and several other provisions favored by progressives.
The 3,488-page compromise bill, which supports $738 billion in defense spending for 2020, left out limits on the border wall, low-yield nuclear weapons and the president’s authorization to wage war on Iran. However, Democratic leaders did win ― in exchange for the Space Force ― an agreement for 12 weeks of paid parental leave to millions of federal workers, which could give some House Democrats otherwise opposed to the large defense bill a reason to vote for it.
The agreement caps months of negotiations made unusually complex because Democrats control the House and Republicans the Senate. The House is expected to vote as soon as Wednesday, as Congress has only a few days to pass the bill before the House’s Christmas recess begins Thursday afternoon. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law.
“This conference report is the product of months of hard-fought, but always civil and ultimately productive, negotiations,” the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees said in a joint statement. They praised the bill for “positioning our Armed Forces to meet the next wave of threats outlined in the National Defense Strategy, reforming the business side of the Pentagon, and most importantly, caring for our service members and their families.”
In a history making win for Trump, the agreement would add a new armed service, dedicated to space, under Title 10 of U.S. Code, which was an action the White House saw as pivotal to solidifying it as a fully independent military branch. The Space Force would be housed within the Air Force and led by the chief of space operations, who would report directly to the Air Force secretary and be a member of the Joint Chiefs.
The National Defense Authorization Act would authorize 12 more Lockheed F-35 fighter jets for the U.S. military than the administration requested, for a total of $1 billion. It would authorize $440 million to build fighter aircraft that Turkey was to buy before it was removed from the F-35 program for purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system.
In some of the other hardware, the legislation would also provide the Air Force with eight new Boeing F-15EX fighters and the Navy with three Arleigh Burke destroyers, a new frigate, two more amphibious warships and three unmanned surface vessels.
The bill also sets some guideposts for Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy, barring the president from removing the U.S. from NATO and from lowering the number of U.S. troops in South Korea below 28,500. Earlier this month, the Pentagon was forced to deny the U.S. was considering withdrawing its troops from South Korea if it does not pay more for maintaining them.
The bill would include sanctions on Nord Stream 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s $11 billion project to deliver natural gas to Europe via a new pipeline from Russia to Germany, news Defense News broke last month.
In settling a conference report, congressional leaders rejected language from House Democrats to cut $30 million for the deployment of a low-yield variant of a submarine-launched warhead called the W76-2. Still, the bill does include language requiring congressional notification and a 120-day waiting period before the president gives notice of his intent to withdraw from the New START and Open Skies treaties.
While the bill would formalize an end to U.S. aerial refueling for the Saudi-led coalition’s military operations against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, it rejected House provisions to bar unauthorized use of force against Iran and a repeal of the 2002 resolution authorizing the Iraq War — which has since been stretched to other conflicts.
Though the compromise is attracting new support some House Republicans, several progressive members of Congress almost immediately came out against it. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a top candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and Rep. Ro Khanna, first vice-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, released a statement on Tuesday morning.
“Every member of Congress should vote against this measure," said Sanders, I-Vt., and Khanna, D-Calif. "There is no pressing reason for Congress to shower [President Donald] Trump, his Saudi friends, and the Pentagon contractors of the military-industrial complex with this $738-billion taxpayer giveaway right now. We owe it to the American people to go back to the drawing board. Congress must say no.”
Trump’s demands for up to $8.6 billion more for the U.S.-Mexico border wall complicated negotiations on federal spending for 2020 and the NDAA. Democrats sought unsuccessfully to block the action, but Republicans controlling the Senate have stuck with Trump ― and an impasse over his demands fueled fears Congress would resort to funding the government for the entire budget year at current spending levels.
However, the compromise bill left out a House-passed measure to block DoD funds for use to build barriers along the southern border. Conferees in both parties, a report summary said, “intend to continue monitoring border support missions and assessing the impact on military readiness, but deferred final decisions on border security support to the FY20 Appropriations process.”
The agreement would lower the president’s authority to transfer funds between accounts to the Senate’s $4 billion and not the House’s $1 billion; and it would limit the president’s special transfer authority to $2 billion and not the $500 million the House sought―a midpoint that favors the Senate.
In personnel matters, the bill included reforms of reforms to privatized military housing, after a Reuters investigation last year found widespread problems, and it would also end the so-called “widows tax” that penalized some families of deceased service members. The bill also includes a 3.1 percent raise for troops.
The agreement would mostly ban the use of toxic firefighting foam tied to base groundwater contamination nationwide, but the bill didn’t go as far as Democratic leaders sought. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House would hold a vote in January on broader restrictions on the chemicals, known as “PFAS,” a move which may deflect some Democratic frustrations with the defense bill.
The National Defense Authorization Act has been finalized by Congress for 58 consecutive years, but this year’s bipartisan, bicameral negotiations were unusually difficult and complex because of split control of Congress.
“The result is not either side’s ideal bill, but it is one that should be able to pass both chambers under the circumstances,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday, before the conference report was finalized.
Republican opposition to the House bill earlier on meant Democratic leaders had to open the door to progressive policy measures. Then Republicans sought to eliminate many of those measures through the conference negotiation, so the bill could pass the GOP-controlled Senate ― a gambit that appeared largely successful with the bill’s release.
With an agreement close last week, Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry―an influential lead Republican on the House Armed Services Committee ― said he could vote for the compromise, adding, “I can certainly encourage Republicans to support it … We have an opportunity to pass it for year 59, we shouldn’t blow it.”
Though Thornberry opposed the House version of the bill in June, he was in pitch mode for the compromise version last Tuesday, telling reporters that passing the NDAA would offer lawmakers a rare chance to accomplish something significant.
“How many opportunities are there to legislate these days, and you have in this bill literally hundreds of provisions that a member can say, ‘I did that, I’m responsible for that,’” Thornberry said. “If this bill falls flat, yes it’s bad for the military, but it’s also bad for the institution of Congress.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.