WASHINGTON — The House on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a $768 billion defense policy bill after lawmakers abruptly dropped proposals that would have required women to register for the draft, repealed the 2002 authorization of the Iraq War and imposed sanctions for a Russian gas pipeline, in a late-year drive to salvage a bipartisan priority.
The legislation, unveiled hours before the vote, put the Democratic-led Congress on track to increase the Pentagon’s budget by roughly $24 billion above what President Joe Biden had requested, angering anti-war progressives who had hoped that their party’s control of the White House and both houses of Congress would lead to cuts to military programs after decades of growth.
Instead, the measure provides significant increases for initiatives intended to counter China and bolster Ukraine, as well as the procurement of new aircraft and ships, underscoring the bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill for continuing to spend huge amounts of federal money on defense initiatives, even as Republicans lash Democrats for spending freely on social programs.
On the heels of winding down the nation’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, Biden declared the end of an era defined by ground wars with large troop deployments and pledged that the United States instead would counter threats through military technology and cybersecurity competition. But citing new threats from Russia and China, lawmakers rejected the president’s request to keep military spending essentially flat and instead overwhelmingly called for increasing it substantially.
“One of the major challenges our military faces right now is dealing with the rapid pace of technology; is getting the Pentagon to better and more quickly adopt the innovative technologies that we need to meet our national security threats,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chair of the Armed Services Committee. “Those threats are very real.”
The lopsided 363-70 vote on Tuesday sent the legislation to the Senate, where it is expected to pass with strong bipartisan support as soon as this week. It came just minutes after the House approved an unusual measure to lay the path for a swift increase in the debt ceiling to avert a first-ever federal default, clearing the way for Democrats in Congress to complete their year-end business and use the rest of their legislative calendar to try to enact Biden’s marquee social and climate policy bill.
Because it authorizes an annual pay increase for the nation’s troops as well as new Pentagon programs, the defense policy bill has typically been considered a must-pass item, and lawmakers have prided themselves on doing so annually without fail for decades. The House and Senate usually craft and pass their own bills separately, considering dozens of amendments along the way, before negotiating a compromise version.
But this year, the process has collapsed in an end-of-year spasm of dysfunction unusual even for a legislative body that is plagued by partisan paralysis.
The Senate neither passed its own defense bill nor considered any amendments, denying lawmakers the chance to vote on a number of foreign policy issues. Instead, top congressional officials huddled behind closed doors in recent days to cobble together a bill that could quickly pass both chambers.
In its final form, the legislation would authorize a 2.7% pay increase for the nation’s military, call for an independent commission to scrutinize the war in Afghanistan, and prohibit the Pentagon from procuring items produced with forced labor from the Xinjiang region of China, where as many as 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in work camps.
It also contains a painstakingly negotiated compromise to strip military commanders of authority over sexual assault cases and many other serious crimes, placing them under independent military prosecutors in a move that had long been opposed by military leaders and presidents. Both Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin endorsed the shift this year.
Other significant changes were left out in the interest of swift passage. Lawmakers tossed out a measure requiring women to register with the Selective Service System for the first time in U.S. history, a step endorsed by a national commission last year that found expanding eligibility for the selective service would be a crucial step toward increasing both gender equity and readiness in the military.
Some conservatives in Congress had long resisted the idea, arguing that it was immoral to force women to fight the nation’s wars, and a bloc of House Republicans had threatened to withhold their support for the bill if it was included. Their votes were needed because of opposition among liberals, who refused to endorse such a large defense budget.
Leaders of the armed services committees also excluded a House-passed bill 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 was expected to win broad bipartisan backing in the Senate.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., one of the lead authors of the measure, told reporters he was “confident” that the issue would get a vote in the “near future,” citing a commitment from party leaders.
Also missing from the final legislation was a provision passed by the House that directed Biden to impose sanctions over the Nord Stream 2, an undersea gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany that lawmakers fear will give Moscow undue leverage over Central Europe.
“This sends the worst possible message to Ukraine as Putin’s forces stand at its doorstep,” Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said of the decision to pull the language from the bill. “So much for Congress reasserting its role in foreign policy.”
In a separate vote Tuesday, the Senate shot down a bipartisan attempt by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, to block a $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The three lawmakers argued that sending the tranche — including 280 air-to-air missiles and nearly 600 missile launchers — would reward the Saudi government for continuing to wage war in Yemen.
The Biden administration lobbied against the blockade, arguing that the tranche was composed of only defensive weapons, and ultimately only 30 senators, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, voted in favor of the legislation.
In September, the House Armed Services Committee approved its version of the legislation, after over a dozen moderate Democrats on the panel joined Republicans in approving a larger Pentagon budget. That move infuriated progressive Democrats, who opposed the bill Tuesday.
“I support having by far the strongest military in the world and the good-paying defense jobs in my district that protect our troops,” said Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich. “But I cannot support ever-increasing military spending in the face of so much human need across our country.”
The bill still includes several provisions requiring that the administration 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.
In addition to authorizing the creation of a commission to scrutinize the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the measure would bar defense contractors and former Cabinet secretaries from serving on it.