Congressional leaders say they’re confident they can reach agreement on a compromise defense authorization bill later this year even though the House and Senate drafts advanced so far differ significantly on a host of contentious social issues.
On Thursday, Senate lawmakers approved their version of the massive authorization bill, which outlines plans for $886 billion in defense spending next fiscal year and mandates a host of program and policy changes for the military.
It also includes a 5.2% pay raise for troops next January and a collection of bonus reauthorizations needed for recruiting and retention efforts. The measure has been passed out of Congress for 62 years, and is considered must-pass legislation for Congress each year.
Senators advanced their draft after more than a week of amendments work which included new protections for military members from debt collectors and new limits on Chinese access to sensitive U.S. military technology. The final measure passed by a 86-11 vote, with significant support from members of both parties.
That stands in sharp contrast to the House authorization bill vote earlier this month, which passed 219-210 largely along party lines.
House Democrats balked at supporting the measure after GOP leaders included amendments which would repeal the Defense Department’s abortion access policies, restrict medical care for transgender troops, eliminate military diversity initiatives and ban the Pentagon from implementing President Joe Biden’s climate change mitigation orders.
Despite the acrimony, key congressional leaders said this week they are confident the competing authorization bill drafts can be sorted out in interchamber negotiations, and that a compromise can be found sometime this fall.
“We’ll get it done,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “Staff will go ahead and start compromising on low-hanging differences over the August recess, and we’ll get back in September to clean up the other differences. I’m confident we’ll wind up in a good place.”
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, also said he was “optimistic” about the final product, stating “we always get a bill, six decades plus. We’ll get one this time.”
Committee ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash. — who voted against the measure on the House floor — expressed a similar positive outlook.
“I think we will be able to resolve our differences,” he said on Thursday. “Obviously, the House Republicans are going to have to back off a lot of those things they added in. But we were perfectly OK with the bill as it passed out of committee. So there is a path ahead.”
The House Armed Services committee draft of the measure did include limits on Defense Department diversity training, restrictions on future COVID-19 vaccines mandates and several other measures that drew the ire of minority Democrats. But ultimately most voted to move ahead with the legislation, because of its overall importance to the military.
Despite the vast differences between the two bills on culture war issues, they both contain a series of similar provisions. That includes language freezing new construction at the temporary Space Command facility in Colorado Springs and freezing half of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s budget until he makes a months-overdue decision about whether to keep the combatant command there or move it to Huntsville, Alabama as previously planned.
Both bills also institutionalize the sea-launched cruise missile nuclear program while providing approximately $190 million in FY24 for its continued research and development, despite opposition from the Biden administration.
The Senate also amended its bill on the floor with numerous other provisions. Last week, senators voted 65-28 to require congressional approval for U.S. withdrawal from NATO — a precaution against former President Donald Trump’s possible return to the White House.
The Senate also unanimously attached an amendment from Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc.,that would require 100% of components in Navy ships to be manufactured in the United States by 2033.
Another amendment includes two authorizations for the trilateral AUKUS agreement with Australia and Britain: one that allows the U.S. to begin training private sector Australian employees in submarine work and another intended to speed up export control licenses for the two countries.
However, Wicker blocked two other AUKUS authorizations from the bill, vowing to hold them until Congress provides more funding for the submarine industrial base via a defense spending supplemental.
The authorizations Wicker blocked would have allowed the sale of up to two Virginia-class submarines to Australia and permitted Washington to accept $3 billion from Canberra for the U.S. submarine industrial base.
The House and Senate are scheduled to be on recess until early September. Formal negotiations between the two chambers on the authorization bill will begin then, but informal behind-the-scenes work will carry on throughout the summer.
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.
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.