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Senate passes defense policy bill, setting up talks with House

GOP Sen. Jim Inhofe has hailed the bill as a recognition that “there’s a new emphasis on defending America.” | AP Photo

The Senate on Monday easily passed a $ 716 billion defense policy bill that aims to continue Republican-led efforts to build up the U.S. military but could set up a clash with defense hawks in the House over how best to do it.

The massive legislation would authorize more warships and fighter jets, more troops and the largest pay raise for them in nearly a decade, but in some cases it would still lag behind a House version passed in May and the Pentagon’s own designs.

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The vote was 85-10 to pass the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, H.R. 5515 (115). Next, the House and Senate will work out the differences in their competing versions of the bill in a joint conference committee.

The House handily passed its bill last month and lawmakers are aiming to finalize the legislation by the end of July. But lawmakers are likely to be at odds over the two chambers’ competing visions for the size of the military, major weapons systems and efforts to reform the Pentagon’s bureaucracy.

The margin of Monday’s vote was large enough to overcome any veto from President Donald Trump, despite more than a week of deadlock over controversial amendments ranging from detention of U.S. citizens to aluminum and steel tariffs recently levied by the administration.

Speaking on the Senate floor last week, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who managed the legislation, hailed it as a recognition that “there’s a new emphasis on defending America.”

“I say to those individuals who are making career decisions, help is on its way,” he said.

Despite calls from Armed Services Committee leaders for an open process, few amendments were considered on the Senate floor. Republican infighting led several GOP senators to block amendments in an attempt to secure votes on their proposals, but most amendments were shut out.

As a result, a slew of contentious proposals were scuttled, including an effort by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to undo national security tariffs on steel and aluminum recently levied by Trump on U.S. allies. Proposals from Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) to bar indefinite detention of U.S. citizens were also shut out.

Paul objected to senators’ amendments throughout floor debate in protest of the stonewalling of his indefinite detention proposal. Just before the final vote Monday, Inhofe offered a final bloc of 44 uncontroversial amendments, but the package was blocked by Paul.

And an amendment from Senate Armed Services ranking Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island taking aim at Trump administration plans to develop a new low-yield, submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missile was also set aside. The bill would authorize $ 65 million to develop the weapon and remove a legal requirement that low-yield nuclear weapons be authorized by Congress before the Energy Department can develop them.

House and Senate Democrats, who contend new tactical nukes would be destabilizing and increase the risk of nuclear war, have made cutting the funding for the weapons a priority.

“If this defense bill passes in its current form, Congress will have lost our best opportunity to have a say in how they will develop it, what it will cost, and how or where it will be deployed,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said on the floor.

Senators did, however, adopt a provision to reinstate tough penalties on ZTE for violating U.S. sanctions laws. The bipartisan proposal, offered by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), would effectively reverse a deal struck by the administration to ease sanctions on the company.

The Commerce Department announced earlier this month it had reached a deal with ZTE to end sanctions where the company would pay a $ 1 billion fine and appoint new management. The White House has warned congressional efforts to overturn the deal would infringe on the separation of powers.

President Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty Images

Still, military and intelligence officials have warned that technology from companies with close ties to the Chinese government, like ZTE or Huawei, could be used to spy or carry out cyberattacks in the U.S.

The defense debate, however, was missing the Senate’s central leader on national security issues: Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been at home battling brain cancer since late last year.

Inhofe, the second-most senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, led floor debate in McCain’s place. And although McCain wasn’t present for the hearings, markups and votes leading up to Monday’s approval, aides and fellow senators insist the legislation embodies the aggressive approach he has taken toward Pentagon programs and bureaucracy since taking the Armed Services gavel.

“Make no mistake, he may not be here today, but … this is his bill,” Inhofe said on the Senate floor. “His priorities, his policy objectives are in this bill.”

The legislation is named for McCain. And the Senate voted McCain another honor, approving a provision establishing a new Defense Department civilian fellowship program named for him.

Of a total $ 716 billion, the legislation would authorize $ 617.6 billion for the Pentagon base budget and $ 68.5 billion in war spending in the Overseas Contingency Operations account. It would authorize another $ 21.6 billion for nuclear weapons programs under the Energy Department.

The bill would continue a major military buildup launched with a two-year budget agreement in February, but at a more modest pace than sought by the House or the Pentagon’s fiscal 2019 budget.

The legislation paves the way for a 2.6 percent military pay raise, even with the level called for by law and requested by the Pentagon.

A border patrol officer is pictured. | Getty

It would authorize $ 23.1 billion to build 10 new Navy ships, even with the Pentagon’s request. But that’s three fewer ships than recommended by the House. Notably, the legislation authorizes just one Littoral Combat Ship, despite calls from lawmakers in Alabama and Wisconsin, which are home to the shipyards that build the LCS, to buy as many as three.

The Senate bill also would authorize $ 7.6 billion to procure 75 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, two fewer than the Pentagon requested and authorized by the House. It’s a move Senate Armed Services said is needed to dedicate funding toward the plane’s sustainment as production ramps up.

Citing its imprisonment of an American citizen and stated intentions to buy a Russian-made air defense system, the bill would also bar the transfer of the next-generation fighters to Turkey until the Pentagon submits a plan to remove Turkey from the F-35 program.

The Senate bill would also grow the military at a slower rate than envisioned by the House or the Pentagon. The number of active-duty troops across the military services would grow by just under 7,000 over the current year under the Senate bill, while the House bill would increase the active force by 15,600, matching the Pentagon request.

The bill also includes a major overhaul to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a Treasury Department-led panel that reviews foreign takeovers of U.S. companies.

In May, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis urged lawmakers to include the new crackdown, prompted by concerns that China and other countries could obtain sensitive U.S. technology.

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