WASHINGTON — Congress on Friday passed a spending bill to fund the government and avoid a shutdown as part of a deal that includes a significant cash influx for the Defense Department with a 9% budget increase over fiscal 2022 levels on top of billions in additional aid for Ukraine.
The House on Friday voted 225-201 to pass the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill after the Senate did the same 68-29 on Thursday. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the legislation, which includes $817 billion for the FY23 Pentagon budget as well as another $27.9 billion for the Defense Department to continue its effort to support Ukraine. This marks a significant increase over the $773 billion in defense spending Biden asked for as part of his budget proposal earlier this year.
“The world’s greatest military will get the funding increase that it needs, outpacing inflation,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday. “This is a debate about American security, American servicemembers, and American interests on the world stage.”
The agreement contains $8 billion specifically allocated to help the Pentagon cope with the impact of inflation, including $1 billion in acquisition-related costs and $3.7 billion for fuel. Republicans and some centrist Democrats have hammered the Biden administration for underestimating the inflation rate in its budget proposal.
The bill brings the total amount of emergency cash Congress has given the Pentagon to help Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion to $61.4 billion since the war started in March.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to Congress — and skeptical House Republicans — for additional aid in a joint address Wednesday following a meeting with Biden at the White House.
“It is just a matter of time when [Russia] will strike against your other allies if we do not stop them now,” said Zelenskyy. “There should be no taboos between us in our alliance. Ukraine never asked the American soldiers to fight on our land instead of us. I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly operate American tanks and planes themselves.”
The omnibus includes $9.3 billion for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which allows the Pentagon to contract for new weapons and equipment for Kyiv.
Another $11.9 billion in the Ukraine supplemental spending is allocated for the Defense Department to replenish weapons the U.S. has already sent to Kyiv from its existing stockpiles under presidential drawdown authority. The bill also increases Biden’s drawdown authority for Ukraine to $14.5 billion for FY23, allowing him to continue transferring weapons from U.S. stocks.
Littoral combat ships
The bill takes aim at the Navy’s efforts to retire littoral combat ships, which Congress inhibited when it passed the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act earlier this month. A report accompanying the omnibus directs Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro to submit a plan on littoral combat ships to Congress within a month from when the bill becomes law.
“The Navy is conducting studies on the alternative uses of these platforms, including the future integration of unmanned systems,” the report states. “It is noted and appreciated that the Navy is taking these positive steps in utilizing ships that were funded at great taxpayer expense.”
The omnibus allocates $31.9 billion for the Navy to buy an additional 12 ships with an eye on bolstering the fleet to compete with China in the Indo-Pacific. That includes $6.9 billion for three Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, despite the White House’s opposition to acquiring a third such ship.
“Month after month, year after year, competitors such as China are methodically pouring money and planning into upgrading and modernizing their own militaries,” said McConnell. “They are constantly probing new ways to expand their military, intelligence, economic, and political reach — indirectly or directly threatening American forces and our allies’ and partners’ forces.
Additionally, the bill provides $4.5 billion for two Virginia-class fast attack submarines, $3.1 billion for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, another $3.1 billion for two amphibious assault ships and $1.1 billion for a Constellation-class Frigate.
Aircraft transfers to Central Asia
The bill report says the “agreement provides funding for international security cooperation programs with Central Asian countries to increase border security and counter terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan by utilizing certain aircraft taken out of that country.”
The Biden administration is negotiating with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to transfer some 50 U.S. aircraft in exchange for counter-terrorism cooperation. Afghan pilots affiliated with the previous U.S.-backed government flew these planes out of the country amid the Taliban takeover last year in the wake of the Biden administration’s withdrawal.
The report directs Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to consult with Congress on the costs of transferring these aircraft to the aforementioned Central Asian countries within two months of the bill’s enactment.
The omnibus also provides $8.5 billion to procure 61 F-35 fighter jets and restore another 19. That’s on top of another $2.1 billion to continue modernizing the F-35 program.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.