Senate Proceeds with Controversial Defense Bill Following House Altercation

 Senate Proceeds with Controversial Defense Bill Following House Altercation

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Following a heated and partisan episode in the House, Senate lawmakers have taken on their own rendition of the annual defense policy bill. This comes shortly after their counterparts in the House managed to push through an extensively disputed version of the legislation, which is considered crucial and obligatory.

Before sending the bill to President Biden for his signature, the Senate must reconcile its fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with the House’s version by the end of September. Senators aim to commence negotiations with the House before the month concludes.

However, the disparity between the two chambers seems to be quite substantial.

The House-approved version passed on Friday, consisted of numerous contentious amendments that placed restrictions on abortion access for troops, Pentagon diversity programs, and medical care for transgender service members. These amendments rendered the bill unappealing to Democrats, resulting in the traditionally bipartisan legislation narrowly passing in a vote largely divided along party lines.

Due to the Senate’s regulations, its version will inherently exhibit less partisanship, but Republicans are still anticipated to attempt the inclusion of some conservative measures during the floor debate.

Considering this anticipation, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged both parties on Tuesday to collaborate and reject any amendments that could hinder the bill’s passage.

“I certainly hope we do not see the kind of controversy that severely hindered the NDAA process over in the House,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Both sides should defeat potentially toxic amendments and refrain from delaying the NDAA’s passage. So far, we have thankfully avoided all of that.”

Schumer noted a couple of highlights that made it into the first manager’s package, including amendments to take early steps on artificial intelligence, tackle U.S. competitiveness with China, and sanction China for its role in producing fentanyl.

The Senate bill made it through its first hurdle when it passed a procedural vote 72-25 on Tuesday evening; 22 of the ‘nay’ votes were by Republicans.

And senators Wednesday began to insert a package of 51 uncontroversial amendments to the NDAA — including 21 Republican, 21 Democratic, and 9 bipartisan amendments. The upper chamber kicked off those amendment votes Wednesday afternoon.

Lawmakers are also working on a smaller manager’s package to include a number of other amendments, but have indicated they are unsure how big it will be all told.

“That’s still very much TBD,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The good news is a lot of issues are still on the table and we’re trying to work them out.”

As that process happens, Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will attempt to hammer out an agreement for votes on more controversial proposals, a process that will largely happen behind closed doors.

“We’re discussing the amendment strategy on a regular basis,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters. “We’ve got some amendments that are queued up to be voted on — hopefully — already, and there will be more to come. But what exact amendments ultimately get voted on are still a consideration.”

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the top Republican on the chamber’s Armed Services Committee, added that there are a “number of burden-sharing votes” that Republican senators are hopeful to win amendment votes for as part of the NDAA process.

“Clearly, there are some Ukraine votes that may or may not win majorities, but members deserve to be heard on them,” Wicker said.

One topic likely to come up, however, is the fight over the Pentagon’s policy to reimburse travel costs for service members who cross state lines to seek abortions. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) since March has held up hundreds of military promotions — including numerous top roles, such as Marine Corps commandant — to force a reversal on the policy.

While Republicans don’t have the 60 votes needed to undo the policy using the NDAA, the GOP may still push for a vote.

Tuberville maintained Tuesday that an NDAA amendment vote would still not be enough for him to drop his hold. The Alabama Republican on Tuesday spoke with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for the second time in as many weeks about his months-long hold, which is approaching 300 promotions.

Early Wednesday, Pentagon officials conducted a briefing on the new abortion policy for members of the Armed Services panel in the Senate. Senator Tuberville expressed his support for the provisions included in the House version of the bill that aimed to reverse the Pentagon’s policy on abortion. However, he voiced concerns that the Senate may eliminate those provisions.

In regards to the briefing held on Wednesday, Tuberville stated that it was not informative and did not provide substantial insights, including the number of military members who have utilized the updated policy.

There are other proposed initiatives that may be subject to voting, such as those seeking to limit Pentagon diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, reduce Ukraine aid, or enhance oversight of assistance to Kyiv.

The Senate defense bill already incorporates several conservative policy victories, including provisions that prevent the Pentagon from creating DEI-related positions or filling vacancies for such roles until the Government Accountability Office conducts a review of the Defense Department’s workforce.

Republican senators are also pushing for the Pentagon to devise a strategy to combat drug and human trafficking along the southern border.

As of now, the White House has refrained from commenting on the Senate bill. In a statement released on Tuesday, they indicated that they are not providing detailed views at this time due to the short period between the bill’s public release and Senate action.

But some lawmakers have given their prediction as to the fate of the bill, should controversial measures make their way into the Senate NDAA as it did in the House, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.). Reed said it “would be very challenging” to support such legislation if it hampers abortion access and diversity initiatives.

“We will have votes on many of these topics. I don’t think the Senate will support the legislation that’s been promulgated by the House,” Reed said over the weekend on CNN. “I think it just does not serve the welfare of troops, nor the professionalism and the training of the forces we need.”

Still, McConnell predicted Wednesday that the NDAA will “pass on a pretty strong bipartisan basis” after the amendment process wraps.

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