Massive defense bill approved by U.S. Senate, but deep partisan divide with House looms
WASHINGTON — U.S. senators avoided a heated partisan split as they passed the massive annual defense policy package late Thursday — in stark contrast to the GOP-led House version, in which far-right members included language to restrict abortion access and transgender care for service members.
Senators passed the National Defense Authorization Act, 86-11, but lawmakers are expected to hit a rocky road as both chambers will now have to reconcile their respective versions. Congress has reliably enacted the defense bill for over 60 years but the deep partisan differences this year raise the prospect the legislation could falter.
Members in the upper chamber spent the week voting on just over a dozen standalone amendments to the roughly 1,100-page bill, as well as a bipartisan manager’s package of nearly 50 bipartisan measures.
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“The NDAA is a prime example of how Congress can work together for the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a Thursday night press conference. “We have a very divided country, a divided Congress, but nonetheless we were able to come together and pass a bill overwhelmingly on one of the most important issues facing America, the defense bill, and this is not alone.”
The House “ought to look to the bipartisan Senate as to how to get things done instead of just throwing out partisan bills that have no chance, no chance, of passing,” Schumer continued. Many of the policy riders in the House bill would not be accepted in the Democratic-led Senate.
The $886 billion authorization package does not directly allocate the funds to the Department of Defense. Rather, it sets out a guide for how they should be spent. Congressional appropriators are slowly working through a separate annual process to green-light all government funds through 12 spending bills.
Ukraine aid, radioactive waste, Pride flags
Several amendments received broad backing, though senators rejected a rider from top Foreign Affairs Republican Jim Risch of Idaho and Senate Armed Services Ranking Member Roger Wicker of Mississippi to designate an inspector general to oversee Ukraine aid.
Amendments from Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming on investing in domestic uranium production and from Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey to reenact the firefighter cancer registry were among those voted into the final version with strong support from both sides of the aisle.
A proposal from Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri to compensate those suffering illnesses from the government’s radioactive waste just made it over the 60-vote threshold to be added to the NDAA.
Meanwhile, senators rejected a bid from Republican Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas aimed at restricting flags that can fly over military installations — a measure that made it into the GOP-led House military spending bill
Democrat Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the first woman in Congress to come out as an openly LGBTQ person, spoke on the floor before the vote in opposition to Marshall’s offering, calling it a “thinly veiled” attempt to ban the Pride flag.
Earlier this week, a bipartisan measure to ban China, Iran, North Korea and Russia from purchasing U.S. farmland, co-sponsored by GOP Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Democrat Jon Tester of Montana, received overwhelming support. An amendment to screen outbound private U.S. investment in those nations, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, was also approved in a near unanimous vote Tuesday.
Alabama v. Colorado over Space Command
Among the priorities negotiated into the final Senate version was Alabama U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s bid to tie the construction budget of the U.S. Air Force as well as the Air Force secretary’s travel account to a final decision on the location of U.S. Space Command.
The command center, which largely oversees the nation’s satellites, has been provisionally located in Colorado Springs, Colorado since 2019.
However, prior to leaving office former President Donald Trump announced the headquarters would move to Huntsville, Alabama.
Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper of Colorado strongly opposed Tuberville’s language in the NDAA, but ultimately their amendment to strike it never came up for a vote.
“It’s unacceptable that Senator Tuberville continues to put politics above our military readiness and national security by holding critical funding hostage,” Bennet said in an emailed statement. “The Biden Administration must work swiftly to make a final basing decision for the U.S. Space Command headquarters based on our national security, not politics.”
The Pentagon referred all questions to the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force, as a general policy, does not comment on pending legislation, a spokesperson said.
“What we want to do is try to force the Air Force secretary to make a decision,” Tuberville said Thursday, speaking to reporters near the Senate subway. “No matter where it goes, we need to get Space Command going. I mean we’re three years into this and we’re not even closer than we were three years ago.”
Hickenlooper said he’s reached out to the Biden administration “only about 1,000 times” regarding the Space Command location decision, and while “they don’t hang up on me, and they listen very patiently,” he still hasn’t received a definitive answer.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s all about our national security and that obviously I have a state self-interest in that it’s already in Colorado. But if it was already in New Hampshire, and for political purposes President Trump was moving it to Mississippi, I’d still be against it,” Hickenlooper told States Newsroom while walking from the floor to his office Thursday.