Senate OKs compromise defense bill without culture war measures

Despite some last-minute hurdles thrown up by a handful of senators, the upper chamber cleared the measure with little obstruction. The bill, though, still faces conservative resistance in the House after leaders attached a short-term extension of federal surveillance powers, coupled with the exclusion of many of their social policy priorities.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the compromise bill “precisely the kind of bipartisan cooperation the American people want from Congress.”

“At a time of huge trouble for global security, doing the defense authorization bill is more important than ever,” Schumer said on the floor. “Passing the NDAA enables us to hold the line against Russia, stand firm against the Chinese Communist Party, and ensure that America’s defenses remain state of the art at all times.

House and Senate leaders entered talks deeply divided. House Republicans narrowly passed a hard-right defense bill this summer with provisions to block or significantly limit the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy, coverage of medical treatment for transgender troops and programs to promote diversity and inclusion in the ranks. Democrats largely opposed the bill over those conservative add-ons.

The Senate sidestepped the most contentious issues and passed its own bill with bipartisan support. The measures from the House version were dropped in the negotiations — including language limiting funding for abortion access, transgender medical treatment and drag shows.

Still, top Republicans argued the compromise bill includes some conservative wins that they muscled through the Democratic-led Senate.

“It’ll focus the Pentagon more squarely on tackling national security challenges instead of creating new ones with partisan social policies,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the bill.

While many GOP-backed proposals attacking the Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts were dropped, Republicans touted provisions included in the final deal that institute a pay cap and hiring freeze for defense employees dedicated to those programs.

The final bill also includes language supported by Republicans prohibiting the promotion of critical race theory and the display of unapproved flags at military installations, such as the pride flag.

Republicans, led by Senate Armed Services ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), also touted a provision that requires the Pentagon to develop a plan for what to do with unused border wall materials.

Skeptics of Ukraine assistance, who have argued that the Biden administration isn’t conducting enough oversight of weapons and equipment sent into the fight, also got a win as negotiators agreed to create a Special Inspector General for Operation Atlantic Resolve, the official name for the military response to Russia’s invasion.

There was still some angst among senators over the final deal that sparked protest votes.

Ahead of the final vote, senators blocked in a 65-35 vote a last-minute bid by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to strip out the four-month extension of federal authorities to conduct sweeping surveillance of foreigners’ communications, known as Section 702 authority.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado threatened to delay a final vote Wednesday in a push to convince leaders to finish border negotiations that could unlock stalled supplemental funding for Ukraine. Bennet backed off and allowed the vote to proceed after he received assurances from Senate leaders that talks were advancing.

The deal also includes a raft of provisions to implement the AUKUS submarine-sharing pact between the U.S., U.K. and Australia — including the transfer of Virginia-class subs — after a tough funding fight.

Wicker blocked the authorization of the sub transfers to Australia in a bid to secure passage of $3.4 billion in submarine industrial base funding in the emergency supplemental spending bill, alongside Israel and Ukraine aid. Under the final deal, the sub transfer wouldn’t take effect until a year after the bill becomes law.

The bill also greenlights a 5.2 percent troop pay raise.