House passes budget-busting defense policy bill

The House passed on Friday a sweeping $696 billion defense policy bill that would exceed President Donald Trump’s budget request and break through longstanding caps on national defense spending.

The fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act H.R. 2810 (115) was approved 344 to 81, gaining the support of 117 Democrats and all but eight Republicans.

The bill would exceed the president’s $603 billion defense budget request. But it also would blow past the $549 billion cap on defense spending set under the 2011 Budget Control Act by about $72 billion. For the funding scheme to work, lawmakers would need to strike a deal to increase or repeal the budget caps.

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved its version S. 1519 (115) of the annual legislation last month. The full Senate has yet to take up the bill.

The House measure would authorize $621.5 billion for national defense programs, including the Pentagon’s base budget and nuclear programs under the Energy Department, as well as another $75 billion in war funding.

It also would tap $10 billion from the war-related Overseas Contingency Operations account to pay for base budget items, including $6 billion to boost Navy shipbuilding. The NDAA funding levels mirror a budget blueprint being crafted by the House Budget Committee.

On the House floor, Republicans said the must-pass defense policy legislation is a key first step in launching a long-sought military buildup, though they have criticized Trump’s budget for not following through on the buildup he promised. The funding increases, they argued, are necessary for the military to dig out of a readiness crisis and rebuild.

Republicans pointed to major investments in missile defense as well as more active-duty troops in the Army and adding five new ships to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. The bill also would provide troops a 2.4 percent pay raise, higher than the 2.1 percent increase requested.

"What we can guarantee is if we don’t fund these things now, they will not be available when we need them," House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said on the House floor.

"The defense authorization bill is only one step in the process," he added. "There are many more steps to come."

While many Democrats supported the bill, they were quick to point out it would call for significantly more spending than allowed by law, before the Trump administration has submitted a new national security strategy. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is expected to complete the strategic assessment sometime in the fall.

Democrats, instead, called for a broad budget deal to lift caps on both defense and domestic spending.

"It is very possible that $72 billion of what is in this bill is going to disappear between now and the end of this year, unless we address the broader issue of sequestration and budget caps," said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

The committee isn’t alone in pursuing defense legislation that ignores the spending caps. The Senate Armed Services version of the NDAA and annual defense spending legislation approved last month by the House Appropriations Committee both exceed the defense spending cap for the 2018 fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1.

Unlike other recent years, the new administration didn’t threaten to veto the bill, but outlined more than two dozen grievances with the legislation in a Statement of Administration Policy issued Wednesday.

Among other issues, the Trump administration faults lawmakers for moving to establish a separate Space Corps under the Air Force, not extracting savings from military compensation changes and not authorizing a new round of base realignments and closures.

The White House also complained about the use of $10 billion in war funds to supplement the Pentagon’s base budget. And the administration urged lawmakers to cut spending elsewhere in the federal budget to make up for the bill’s $18.5 billion increase in base defense spending over the president’s budget request.

In all, House Republican leaders dodged some of the thornier debates in the bill throughout the week. Lawmakers easily turned aside Democratic proposals to trim defense spending or link increases to equal hikes in funding for domestic agencies.

In its most contentious vote, the House narrowly defeated, 209 to 214, an amendment from Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) that would have barred the Pentagon from paying for gender transition services for transgender troops. Two dozen Republicans joined Democrats to kill the measure, which opponents labeled discriminatory.

The House Rules Committee, which sets the parameters of debate on legislation and amendments, barred most contentious amendments, including a proposal from Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) to delay the creation of a Space Corps, opposed by the Pentagon.

A proposal to sunset the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force didn’t receive a vote, but the House did approve an amendment from Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) that would require a strategy from the administration to defeat the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Taliban and affiliated groups as well as an assessment of whether the 2001 AUMF is adequate to accomplish the strategy.

The Rules panel did, however, approve an amendment to strip a provision that would prohibit Pentagon funding for a border wall promised by Trump during the presidential campaign. But the proposal was included as a self-executing amendment, meaning the House took no separate vote on the measure.

Democrats slammed the border wall move, calling it an "undemocratic, dead-of-night tactic" to avoid a tough debate.

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