WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a $696.5 billion defense policy bill in a bipartisan vote on Friday, but it exceeds statutory budget caps, setting up a showdown.
The House's version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act now awaits Senate passage of its bill so the two can be reconciled. The Senate has yet to take up the $700-billion NDAA passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 28.
The House passed the bill 344-81, with 227 Republicans and 117 Democrats who voted yes and 8 Republicans and 73 Democrats who voted no.
The bill proposes $621.5 billion for the base budget and $75 billion in the wartime Overseas Contingency Operations account. Of that amount, $10 billion is allocated to base budget items.
The bill adds $21 billion of $31 billion in DoD-requested weapons programs left unfunded by the White House budget request.
HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, argued a need to augment the military in the face of global threats and to repair damage wrought by years of defense budget in stability.
"We've done deep damage to our military because of the budget cuts, the continuing resolutions, the erratic nature of funding over the last few years," Thornberry said. "Certainly, the members of our committee who go out and actually talk to the people who serve have heard, seen, witnessed firsthand airplanes that can't fly, ships that can't sail, training that has not gone on."
But while HASC ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., lauded the bill, he said, "It's going to be better" when Congress begins to make budgetary choices that consider domestic spending. The bill "really doesn't make choices" and is "in jeopardy" because it exceeds budget caps by $72 billion.
Democrats have insisted on parity for increases in the defense and nondefense sides of the federal budget in recent years. To ease budget caps requires 60 votes in the Senate, a threshold Democrats are needed to meet, which has given them some leverage in budget negotiations.
Smith said there probably should be parity for defense and nondefense, but the parties could probably "negotiate around" an exact dollar-for-dollar match.
"But to simply gut the nondefense discretionary budget, to plus-up defense does not make this country safer," Smith said, adding, "I care enough about national security that I would raise taxes to pay for it."
The House Rules Committee sent over 200 amendments to the floor this week — more than ever before for an NDAA, according to Thornberry.
The Republican-led House Rules Committee received more than 400 proposed amendments but screened out many that — depending on your point of view — were nongermane to the bill or would have led to floor fights the GOP did not want.
Language to establish a new standalone military branch for space survived over the objections of the White House, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who mounted an appeal to lawmakers to drop it.
However, it would have to be reconciled with Senate's NDAA language that proposes not a Space Corps, but a position of chief information warfare officer who oversees military cyber and space policies. The Senate bill would also require the chief of Air Force Space Command see a six-year term.
House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and ranking member Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who argue reorganizing the U.S. Air Force is necessary to catch up to Russia and China, prevailed in a procedural fight. The House Rules Committee did not advance an amendment to strip the Space Corps language spearheaded by House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio.
The House also narrowly voted down a Republican proposal to bar the Pentagon from paying for gender-transition surgeries that may have cost Democratic support of the bill. It lost in a bipartisan vote, 209-214 — with 24 Republicans joining the minority.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., and proponents said her proposal would prioritize limited defense resources and bar troops from a class of procedures that would render them nondeployable.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., came to the floor with other Democrats to decry the measure as ignorant, discriminatory and mean-spirited. "This isn't going to help readiness. This is a social agenda that has no place in this bill," Smith said.
A proposal to block the U.S. sale of Lockheed Martin-made F-35 fighter jets to Turkey over an attack on protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington two months ago never made it out of the House Rules Committee. The amendment, from Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., was not debated on the House floor.