WASHINGTON — The House’s $874 billion National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2024, advanced early Thursday, would establish a special inspector general for Ukraine aid, mandate Pentagon cybersecurity cooperation with Taiwan, authorize procurement of nine battle force ships and permit some aircraft retirements.
The bill is the first of three major defense bills Congress expects to move forward in less than three days. The Armed Services Committee voted in favor of the bill 58-1 after 14 hours of debate, setting the stage for the full House to vote in July before negotiating final legislation with the Senate. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., was the lone no vote.
“It is a good bill that will strengthen our national defense and provide for our warfighters,” House Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said at the beginning of the mark up on Wednesday. “It will help build the ready, capable and lethal fighting force we need to deter China and our other adversaries.”
Still, Rogers and other Republican defense hawks previously have criticized the $886 billion defense top line as “inadequate” because it doesn’t keep pace with inflation. The top line is up 3.3% from last year, and is locked in place after Congress negotiated a deal to raise the debt ceiling while cutting non-defense spending to $704 billion.
Rogers has joined Senate Republicans in calling for Congress to circumvent the debt limit deal’s defense spending caps through supplemental spending packages for the Pentagon later this year, though House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has resisted that idea.
Ukraine and Taiwan
The Armed Services Committee used electronic voting for the first time this year to mark up the defense authorization bill and more than 800 amendments, allowing lawmakers to move through the marathon session slightly faster than in prior years.
The amendments included a provision from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., that would establish an independent inspector general to oversee Ukraine aid, similar to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan. Republicans have called for this measure to provide an additional layer of Ukraine aid oversight beyond the Pentagon Inspector General. The committee approved the Ukraine inspector general as part of a package of nonpartisan amendments adopted by voice vote.
Democrats unsuccessfully sought to add $500 million to the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative beyond the $300 million the Biden administration requested. Republicans argued the boost would harm readiness, with Rogers noting the offset “robs just about every operations and maintenance account in existence.” The proposed increase, introduced by Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, failed in a 28-31 party-line vote.
The bill stipulates that $80 billion of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funds it provides should go toward giving Kyiv long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems, which the Biden administration has so far refused to send.
Additionally, the bill includes some bipartisan recommendations advanced by the House China Committee last month, including an amendment from China Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., requiring the Defense Department to collaborate with Taiwan on cybersecurity.
Republicans passed 31-28 another China provision introduced by Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, over Democratic objections. That amendment requires the Pentagon to submit a report on plans to blockade fuel shipments to China in the event of a conflict. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the committee’s top Democrat, deemed the provision too aggressive and argued the Pentagon likely has classified plans for this scenario already.
The bill authorizes procurement of nine battle force ships: two Virginia-class submarines, one Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, two Arleigh Burke destroyers, two guided missile frigates, one T-AO fleet oiler and one amphibious transport dock ship.
The Navy did not request the amphibious ship, but the Marine Corps asked for $1.7 billion in its unfunded priority list to finish buying it.
The Armed Services Committee sided with the Marines, arguing the Pentagon’s plans to pause the line would allow the amphibious fleet to drop below the statutory 31-ship requirement. These ships are usually purchased every other year, but an amendment added by sea power subcommittee Chairman Trent Kelly, R-Miss., would authorize incremental funding through FY25 to allow the Defense Department to begin contracting and procuring the next amphibious transport dock in FY24.
Republicans also cited the Pentagon’s decision to pause buying amphibious ships as part of their justification for a provision in the bill that would abolish the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Office and move its duties elsewhere, accusing the office of slowing down the acquisition process.
Lawmakers said the proposed pause could upend workforce and supply chains when Congress is focused on bolstering the shipbuilding industrial base. The bill also invests $251 million in the submarine industrial base in the hopes of getting it on track to build two Virginia-class and one Columbia-class submarines per year.
Republicans also passed an amendment from Strategic Forces subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., that would institutionalize the sea-launched cruise missile nuclear program, while allocating nearly $196 million for its research and development in FY24. Democrats said instating the program would cost at least $31 billion and fundamentally change the mission of attack submarines.
But Lamborn failed to secure enough support to undo Rogers’ provision barring construction at the temporary Space Command headquarters in his Colorado district until Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall makes a long overdue final basing decision and justifies it to Congress. Lamborn withdrew the amendment in the face of opposition from Rogers and two other Alabama lawmakers on the committee, who want the Air Force to place the headquarters in Huntsville.
The bill would thwart Navy efforts to retire three amphibious ships and two cruisers, but it would allow the Air Force to retire 42 A-10 Warthog attack planes after long blocking efforts to do so. And the committee added by voice vote an amendment from Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., to prevent the retirement of Air National Guard squadrons until six months after Congress receives a report on how to fill the gap.
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.