WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday easily approved an annual defense policy bill that authorizes roughly $602 billion in base defense and war spending — baiting a presidential veto.
The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act's passage came as the nation grapples with the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, in which a Florida man killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Reports the killer may have been inspired by jihadist ideas fueled debate of the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., acknowledged the killer's motives were under investigation, but rapped the Obama administration's counter-Islamic State efforts as "insufficient," and lauded the bill as a means to "fight back."
"We're a nation at war, but we're a nation under attack," McConnell said in a floor speech ahead of the vote Tuesday. "We need to continue taking action to protect our country."
The measure, which passed unanimously by the Senate Armed Services Committee, sailed through a Senate vote 85-13. Procedural squabbles effectively limited debate on nearly all amendments, which prevented debate on an amendment stripping language that would compel women to register for a potential military draft — a historic first for the US.
"The acquisition system is broken and needs to be fixed," McCain said after the vote.
President Obama has threatened to veto the House and Senate versions of the bills — the House bill over its unorthodox treatment of overseas contingency operations (OCO) funds, and the Senate bill over its acquisition reform provisions and limits it would place on the closure of the Guantanamo military detainment facility in Cuba.
The Senate last week voted down an amendment from McCain to raise the defense authorization by $18 billion, after Republicans voted down a measure to raise non-defense authorization by $18 billion.
Hawkish Republicans, led by McCain, pressed for added troops, ships, jets and tanks left out of the administration 's budget request, arguing a fiscally stretched military needs the increase as it struggles to absorb readiness and maintenance shortfalls and juggle threats the world over. McCain lost here and was frustrated in efforts to clear a logjam on amendments.
The Senate was able to take action on Russian rocket engines as it took a voice vote to pass an NDAA amendment to allow the military to continue to use Russian RD-180 rocket engines to launch national-security satellites until the end of 2022, though — in a compromise with McCain — caps the number at 18. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who offered the amendment sought flexibility for the Pentagon while officials develop and test an American-made replacement, while McCain pressed for a quicker end to US reliance on the engines.
"This agreement is a win for America's national security and taxpayers," said Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Vice-Chair Sen. Dick Durbin. D-Ill., who jousted with McCain on the issue. "It will provide for a responsible transition to American-made engines and guarantee America's access to space."
"To those who have voted against expanding funding to defense, you have made a mistake," Graham said. "Destroy radical Islam over there before it comes here. To do that you need a stronger military."
The House and Senate bills face significant differences for lawmakers to debate in conference, chiefly their approaches to defense acquisitions reform, where the Senate takes a more aggressive tack, and defense funding.
Obama has threatened to veto seven annual authorization bills, and did so last year over the blurring of wartime funding for base-budget needs, forcing a budget deal which netted parity for defense and non-defense spending.
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.