Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) hands over the gavel to Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) at the start of an Armed Services conference committee meeting on the National Defense Authorization Act on Capitol Hill on Oct. 25 in Washington. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The House easily passed a nearly $700 billion defense bill Tuesday, endorsing a deal struck with Senate negotiators to authorize significantly more resources to Pentagon and military operations than President Trump requested they budget for next year.
The 356 to 70 vote comes after a compromise process that was smoothly bipartisan — a departure from years past, when talks to produce the annual defense bill faltered over bitter political disagreements about spending priorities. The Senate is expected to follow suit by passing the bill in the coming weeks, sending it to the president’s desk.
But the military will likely never see the full windfall lawmakers wrote into the bill, as Congress has yet to approve the federal government’s budget for next year — and will likely appropriate billions less to cover defense spending than the defense authorization bill outlines.
Congress is working toward a mid-December deadline to write a budget that is still subject to spending limits lawmakers imposed on themselves in 2011. If lawmakers adhere to those budget caps, they will have to reduce the defense spending outlined in the bill House lawmakers passed Tuesday by almost $80 billion.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) made an impassioned case Tuesday for why every dollar in the measure was “the right thing for our troops and the right thing for our country.”
“We will not rebuild and fix our problems in one year or one bill,” Thornberry said on the House floor Tuesday. “But we can head in the right direction . . . that’s what this conference report does.”
But ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) warned that while the military urgently needed investment, the burgeoning defense budget was unsustainable without a broader plan to bring government revenue and spending into better balance.
“There is a lot of very good policy in this bill . . . the challenge that we have going forward is the money,” Smith said. “The bill can’t make that money appear on its own.”
The bill as it stands increases financial support for missile defense, larger troop salaries, and modernizing, expanding and improving the military’s fleet of ships and warplanes. The legislation dedicates billions more than Trump’s request for key pieces of military equipment, such as Joint Strike Fighters — there are 20 more in the bill than were in the president’s request — and increasing the size of the armed forces. The bill also outlines an increase of almost 20,000 service members — nearly twice Trump’s request.
The measures steers clear of several contentious policy debates, such as an authorization for use of military force addressing the military’s ongoing operations against the Islamic State and other extremist groups, and lawmakers’ efforts to reverse Trump’s announced ban on transgender troops serving in the military.
The bill also left out a House-backed effort to launch a new “Space Corps” as a separate entity in the military, bowing to pressure from both the Senate and the Trump administration, which opposed the effort. Thornberry nonetheless hat-tipped the authors of that proposal on the House floor Tuesday for drafting “deep, far-reaching reforms based on a real sense of urgency.”