WASHINGTON — In a strong bipartisan vote, House lawmakers on Tuesday passed their $740.5 billion plan for the annual defense authorization bill, including provisions for a hefty military pay raise next year, new restrictions on the president’s war powers and requirements that the Defense Department rename bases honoring Confederate leaders.
That last item prompted another veto threat from President Donald Trump earlier in the day, echoing his comments in recent weeks that renaming the bases would dishonor troops who served at those locations. Democratic lawmakers have disagreed, saying the continued tributes to the Confederacy are offensive to minorities and Americans as a whole.
The White House threat appeared to have little effect on House Republicans, as the measure passed with with a veto-proof majority, 295-125. The tally saw Democrats split 187-43 and Republicans split 108-81.
The bill’s passage came after two days of debate over additional budget and policy priorities for the department, including a push from progressives to reduce defense spending by 10 percent.
The provision — seen as a potential signal to Democratic Party leaders of the need to divert military spending to the country’s coronavirus response — failed by a wide margin, 93-324. A majority of Democrats (139) voted no.
The $740.5 billion top line would bring Defense Department spending in line with Senate and White House plans. The separate drafts of the defense budget outline also all call for a 3 percent pay raise for troops next year and an increase in service end strengths next year.
But hopes of an easy conference negotiation with Senate lawmakers over the measure were put in doubt by the president’s latest veto threat of the legislation.
The 13-page list of complaints includes House plans for a basic needs allowance for the lowest paid troops (the White House says it’s too expensive), a lack of money for military construction projects affected by Trump’s southern border wall plans, and limits on U.S. troop moves out of Afghanistan and Germany.
Trump’s main concern, however, appears to be the issue of the Confederate base names, which include Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Benning in Georgia.
The White House labeled the push (which gained support from both Democrats and Republicans) as “politically motivated attempts … to rewrite history and to displace the enduring legacy of the American Revolution with a new left-wing cultural revolution.”
Senate lawmakers included similar language in their draft of the authorization bill. That chamber is expected to wrap up its work on the measure later in the week.
The White House also objected to a raft of provisions in the House bill that would limit the Air Force’s retirement plans for the A-10 Warthog attack planes, RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drones, and KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, citing the administration’s efforts to shift resources toward competition with Russia and China. The Senate bill included provisions in the same vein.
“The President’s Budget divests or retires platforms to reinvest in leading-edge innovation, ensuring dominance across all domains: air, land, sea, space and cyber,” the White House statement reads.
“Limiting DOD’s flexibility to prioritize resource investment delays modernization of capabilities, preparation for great power competition, and implementation of the [National Defense Strategy].”
House Democrats added fewer partisan provisions than they did in last year’s bill, a move which drew significant Republican opposition during last summer’s negotiations.
However, lawmakers on Monday added limits to the Insurrection Act after Trump threatened to invoke it to deploy active-duty troops against recent civil unrest over racial injustice. The largely party-line vote was 215-190.
The amendment, from Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, would require the president to always consult with Congress before invoking the Insurrection Act. Republican critics said the amendment would unwisely tie the hands of future presidents.
Similarly, another adopted amendment would establish a national cyber director at the White House, a key recommendation of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, a group tasked by Congress with recommending changes to the federal government’s cyber strategy.
Although the move did not receive opposition on the House floor, it’s likely to be a sticking point in later negotiations, since the Trump administration eliminated its cybersecurity coordinator position in 2018.
And House members adopted an amendment to bar live nuclear weapons testing following reports the Trump administration is mulling a resumption of such tests for the first time since 1992. The proposed Senate authorization bill included $10 million to prepare for such tests.
Once the Senate finishes debate on their measure, negotiators from both chambers will spend the rest of the summer working out a compromise measure for final consideration. Despite increased partisan infighting in recent years, the defense authorization bill has passed out of Congress for 59 consecutive years.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.