House sends defense bill to Biden, despite conservative anger over spy powers, culture wars

Speaker Mike Johnson brought the bill up for a vote under an expedited process that bypasses procedural votes that have sunk other bills in Republicans’ razor-thin majority. But the tactic required a two-thirds vote, meaning substantial opposition could have tanked the defense bill.

Ultimately, 73 Republicans and 45 Democrats opposed the final defense bill. Despite being in the minority, Democrats supplied more votes to pass the bill than Republicans.

While the compromise cleared with bipartisan support, it could still create another headache for Johnson, who is already taking heat from the GOP’s right flank over other issues.

Hardliners, led by the conservative House Freedom Caucus, opposed the bill after congressional leaders attached a four-month renewal of spy powers that target foreigners’ communications. The authority, known as Section 702, is set to expire at the end of the year. Johnson has defended the move as necessary to buy time for lawmakers to agree to an overhaul of the program.

Many hard-right members were also angered by what they contend is a lack of GOP wins in the final deal after House Republicans passed their own version of the bill replete with conservative policies in July. They’ve criticized negotiators for dropping House-approved measures to block the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy, bar coverage of gender-affirming medical care for transgender troops and prohibit drag shows on military bases.

Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry (R-Pa.) ahead of the vote criticized the final agreement as “essentially the Senate bill with a couple of crumbs in it.”

“Only in Washington must we bring a bill to the floor so that we are able to militarily confront China while at the same time embracing the policies that make the United States more like China,” added Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

Prior to the final vote, Freedom Caucus member Chip Roy (R-Texas) forced a vote to adjourn the House in protest of the bill and the surveillance extension. The House easily rejected it.

Top Republicans contend the bill still has some significant conservative policy wins that tackle Biden administration policies they argue distract the military from its warfighting mission. Those include a pay cap and hiring freeze for employees who work in the Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs, a prohibition on funding to promote critical race theory and a ban on displaying unapproved flags, including the Pride Flag, on military installations.

“I’ll be the first to admit I’m disappointed we didn’t get all the priorities we wanted,” House Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said during floor debate. “But you know what? The Senate is pretty disappointed they didn’t get the priorities they wanted either.

“It takes compromise to move legislation in a divided government, and this bill is a good compromise,” he said. “It’s laser-focused on deterring our adversaries, especially China.”

House Republicans were ultimately forced to drop the most contentious proposals — led by an amendment to block the Pentagon from reimbursing travel costs for troops seeking abortions — in negotiations with the Senate to win Democratic support for a final bill.

Nearly all House Democrats opposed the bill that narrowly passed the House in July over the culture wars provisions. Most of those lawmakers flipped their votes on the more centrist compromise bill.

The top Armed Services Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, praised the bill and slammed GOP hardliners for their criticism of the defense negotiations.

“I really don’t understand where people get the idea that the way the world works is you get absolutely everything you want and nobody else gets anything,” Smith said.

“This isn’t how ‘This Town’ works. This is how life works,” he said.

The Democratic-led Senate approved its own bill that sidestepped the most controversial issues in July with bipartisan support. The compromise cleared the upper chamber Wednesday night by a wide vote.

In all, the bill authorizes a $886 billion national defense budget, which matches Biden’s fiscal 2024 request. That includes $842 billion for Pentagon programs, $32.5 billion for the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons programs and $11.5 billion for other national security programs.

But the bill doesn’t allocate any funding. Congress still needs to approve a full year appropriations bill for the Pentagon when lawmakers return next year.

The measure authorizes $300 million for the Pentagon to arm Ukraine. Another $14.7 billion was included for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative to boost U.S. military presence in the region to guard against China.

The bill also includes several provisions to implement the trilateral AUKUS submarine pact between the U.S., U.K. and Australia, including authorizing the transfer of Virginia-class attack subs to the Australian Navy.

The bill authorizes funding for Pentagon weapons systems, including $32.9 billion for Navy shipbuilding efforts. That includes an extra $1 billion for a San Antonio-class amphibious warship the Navy didn’t request in its budget, but that Marine Corps leaders urged lawmakers to approve to aid their mission.

The final deal also greenlights a 5.2 percent pay raise for military personnel.