The House on Thursday passed the annual defense authorization bill, sending the mammoth, $847 billion measure to the Senate for consideration ahead of the year-end deadline.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed in a bipartisan 350-80 vote. It was approved under suspension of the rules, an expedited process to pass legislation in the House that requires a two-thirds majority.
“I can’t go through every single item that is in this bill, but I can tell you that just about every member of this House has something in this bill that is important for policy, important in their district,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said ahead of the vote. “This is important policy that makes a huge difference for the people in this body and the people in this country, and I’ve urged us to support it.”
The NDAA, legislation seen as a must-pass for Congress annually, includes an $817 billion top line for the Defense Department and about $30 billion to fund nuclear activities in the Department of Energy.
The bill lays out the blueprint for how the billions of dollars will be allocated at the Pentagon, including a 4.6 percent pay raise for both service members and the agency’s civilian workforce, new weapons programs and equipment upgrades, and new programs and personnel policies.
“We have a nearly 4,000-page bill that exercises the authorizing and oversight authority of the United States Congress on behalf of the American people. We did it very well, we accomplished a lot in this bill. I think every member of this body can vote for it and feel really good about that,” Smith said.
House leaders decided to use the fast-track process after a last-minute push from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Wednesday night to set an accompanying vote on a bill bolstering the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had previously passed through the House but stalled in the Senate. The chamber was initially scheduled to pass the defense bill on Wednesday but punted action to Thursday because of the CBC holdup.
The final bill came together after months of negotiations between lawmakers of both parties and chambers, which bore victories for those on the left and right.
In a win for Republicans, the measure includes language that repeals the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for U.S. service members, which has been in place since August 2021.
The concession was seen as a surprise by many. The White House and Pentagon spoke out against it and similar measures to significantly limit the vaccine mandate were voted down in the House Armed Services Committee during the bill’s markup earlier this year.
But GOP lawmakers for months have spoken out against the policy, arguing that it was a government overreach to force service members to receive the jab and claiming that the policy was hurting military recruitment and retention.
Thousands of active-duty troops have been discharged since the policy went into effect.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) threatened to hold up the legislation if it did not include a rollback of the mandate. McCarthy over the weekend told “Fox News Sunday” that “the bill will not move” if the policy was not lifted. He said he relayed the same message to President Biden during a meeting at the White House last week with the four congressional leaders.
The GOP leader celebrated the victory Monday evening, calling the development “a win for our military.”
Smith on Thursday said the original August 2021 mandate was the “absolute right policy” at the time, but he allowed that it now “does make sense to repeal that order.”
He also urged the Pentagon to reevaluate its vaccine policy “and think about what the right and best policy would be.”
“Personally, I would have preferred the Department of Defense do it on their own, rather than the legislature telling them to, but since they didn’t, I think this makes sense,” Smith added.
Another stumbling block throughout negotiations was whether to include a deal on energy project permitting reform, which Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) sad been pushing for. The initiative was ultimately excluded from the text, handing a significant victory to progressives who wanted it left out while dealing a blow to Manchin.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus released a statement Tuesday night, shortly before the bill text was released, officially staking its opposition to the permitting reform deal — signaling headwinds for Manchin and the fate of the NDAA with his initiative included.
“While many within the CPC are supportive of accelerating and expanding renewable energy transmission, progressives have raised objections to a specific approach under consideration that entrenches new fossil fuel infrastructure, undermines judicial independence, rolls back environmental protection law, and impedes frontline communities’ input or ability to contest polluting infrastructure in their areas, among other concerns,” the group wrote.
Democratic leaders over the summer promised Manchin that a vote on his permitting reform measure would be held this year in exchange for his support of the party’s climate, tax and health care bill, titled the Inflation Reduction Act.
He initially pushed for it to be included in a stopgap government funding measure lawmakers passed in September but later asked for it to be stripped out at the last minute amid growing opposition from Democrats and Republicans.
The West Virginia Democrat then eyed the annual defense spending bill as a way to pass his permitting deal, which aims to speed up the timeline for environmental reviews, bolster the deployment of transmission lines, require the president to expedite priority fossil and renewable projects and secure the approval of a natural gas pipeline in West Virginia.
Manchin slammed the exclusion of his measure from the defense legislation.
“Our energy infrastructure is under attack and America’s energy security has never been more threatened,” he wrote in a statement Tuesday night. “Failing to pass bipartisan energy permitting reform that both Republicans and Democrats have called for will have long term consequences for our energy independence.”
“The American people will pay the steepest price for Washington once again failing to put common sense policy ahead of toxic tribal politics. This is why the American people hate politics in Washington,” he added.