Senate Passes $768 Billion Defense Bill, Sending It to Biden

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed a $768 billion defense bill on Wednesday, sending legislation to President Biden that will increase the Pentagon’s budget by roughly $24 billion more than he requested.

The bill, which angered antiwar progressives who had hoped Democrats’ unified control of Washington would lead to significant cuts in military spending, passed overwhelmingly on an 89-to-10 vote. It includes significant increases for initiatives intended to counter China and bolster Ukraine, as well as for more ships, jets and fighter planes than the Pentagon requested.

The lopsided votes, both in the Senate and the House, which passed the legislation last week, underscored the bipartisan commitment in Congress to spend huge amounts of federal money on defense initiatives at a time when Republicans have balked at spending even a fraction as much on social programs. Lawmakers said the measure was necessary, pointing to rising threats from China and Russia and previewing a looming race over military technology.

“Our nation faces an enormous range of security challenges,” Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

“To that end, this bill makes great progress,” he added. “It addresses a broad range of pressing issues from strategic competition with China and Russia; to disruptive technologies like hypersonics, A.I. and quantum computing; to modernizing our ships, aircraft and vehicles.”

The bill contains a 2.7 percent pay increase for the troops, and a painstakingly negotiated compromise to strip military commanders of authority over sexual assault cases and many other serious crimes. The new provision places such crimes under independent military prosecutors in a move that had long been opposed by military leaders and presidents. Both Mr. Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III endorsed the change this year.

The legislation’s main focus — shifting attention from ground conflicts in the Middle East in favor of a renewed concentration on Beijing and Moscow — aligns with the foreign policy vision Mr. Biden outlined this summer as he ended America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan.

But even as Congress embraced that approach, members could not bring themselves to accept Mr. Biden’s request to keep military spending essentially flat, and both Democrats and Republicans instead linked arms in support of substantial increases.

They sent an additional $2 billion to the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a Pentagon program dedicated to bolstering the department’s posture in the region, authorizing a total of $7 billion for it. They also boosted two similar programs aimed at confronting the rising threat from Moscow, adding about $570 million in additional funding to the European Deterrence Initiative and $50 million in additional military assistance to the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.

They increased the department’s shipbuilding budget by roughly $5 billion more than the Pentagon had requested, to include five additional battle force ships, and approved the procurement of a dozen more Boeing fighter planes than Mr. Biden had proposed. Such projects can bring coveted jobs and development to lawmakers’ districts and states, helping to ensure their continued support and expansion regardless of which political party is in power in Washington.

Only seven Democrats and three Republicans opposed the measure.

What was omitted from the legislation was just as significant. The defense policy bill has typically been considered a must-pass item, and the House and the Senate usually craft and pass their own bills separately, considering dozens of amendments along the way before negotiating a compromise version.

This year, the process collapsed after the Senate neither passed its own defense bill nor considered any amendments. Top congressional officials instead met behind closed doors in recent days to cobble together a bill that could quickly pass both chambers before the end of the year.

Stripped from the legislation was a measure requiring women to register with the Selective Service System for the first time in American history, as well as new sanctions on a Russian gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2.

Leaders of the Armed Services Committees also excluded a House-passed provision to repeal the 2002 law authorizing the invasion of Iraq, which has been stretched by multiple administrations to justify military action around the world. Repealing the authorization had been expected to win broad bipartisan backing in the Senate, part of a growing push by Congress to reassert itself on matters of war and peace and rethink presidential powers.

But that debate was pushed off for another day amid other disputes.

Also scrapped was a provision that would place visa bans on any foreign individuals whom American intelligence officials found responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Proponents of the defense bill argued that despite the choppy process, senators had ultimately united to back crucial investments to maintain military supremacy.

“The security situation with both China and Russia has gotten far worse since the Armed Services Committee first advanced this bill back in July,” said Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the panel. “It’s gotten worse every few days, certainly each week. I can’t think of a more necessary bill to pass right now.”

“I know defense isn’t President Biden’s top priority, but we showed it is a bipartisan priority in this Congress,” Mr. Inhofe added.

The bill includes several provisions requiring the administration to provide more reports to Congress on Afghanistan, including one requesting regular briefings that assess the surveillance and reconnaissance capacity of the United States to conduct counterterrorism operations there.

Also tucked into the legislation with little fanfare was a provision prohibiting service members from being dishonorably discharged for refusing to get the coronavirus vaccine. The measure was supported by Republicans in the House and the Senate, in order to allow those who declined the vaccine to continue receiving certain benefits after leaving the military.

“As a former Army doctor, I support the vaccine, but I also support those who are defending our freedoms and have carefully weighed their decision on whether to receive the Covid vaccine,” said Senator Roger Marshall, Republican of Kansas and a sponsor of the amendment. “Simply put, a dishonorable discharge treats our heroes as felons. But our American heroes deserve better.”

The annual defense bill earmarks spending priorities for the Pentagon’s budget but does not provide the funding to put in place the policies it sets. That aspect is carried out through the defense appropriations process, which is still underway.

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