WASHINGTON -- The House on Thursday approved a compromise defense policy bill that would authorize a wave of significant Defense Department increases, including servicemembers' pay and the number of troops, equipment and weapons for the upcoming fiscal year.
The National Defense Authorization Act, or H.R. 5515, also will usher through a series of new reforms and policy efforts. It passed by a House floor vote of 359 to 54, with most of the no votes coming from Democrats.
The Senate now must approve it, and at this pace, the defense bill could see passage ahead of the start of the next fiscal year on Oct. 1, the first on-time passage of the NDAA in about 20 years.
On Monday, a joint panel of House and Senate lawmakers reached a deal on the $716 billion NDAA after weeks of negotiations that followed a series of discussions and hearings with top military officials.
"This bill takes a major step forward in rebuilding our military, reforms the Pentagon and better prepares this country for dealing with the national security challenges which lay before us," Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday from the lower chamber in opening debate on the NDAA. "This bill continues to make readiness a key focus, for if we send our men and women out on missions, they deserve to have the best equipment, the best training and the best support that this country can provide."
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The lower chamber's NDAA vote comes at end of the House summer session before its members leave Washington for their August recess. The NDAA, which directs policy and spending plans for the Defense Department, could reach the Senate floor as early as next week. The Senate is slated to be in session in August.
However, it remains to be seen when lawmakers will move on companion legislation that actually funds the plan.
For now, the compromise NDAA authorizes a 2.6 percent pay raise for servicemembers, the largest increase in nine years, as well as new purchases of aircrafts, ships, submarines and weapons. It also includes new policy initiatives, such as revamping the military's promotion system and moves to reign in sexual misconduct in the ranks.
The proposed NDAA also dictates the next steps in creating a Space Force, but falls short of President Donald Trump's calls for a new military branch. And the bill authorizes a military parade in that was triggered by Trump's interests for an elaborate celebration in Washington, D.C. in November.
Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday lauded the bill's several provisions directed at the civil war in Yemen, including the prohibition of in-flight refueling of Saudi Arabian or Saudi-led coalition non-U.S. aircraft conducting missions in Yemen. The provisions also require Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to determine whether U.S. armed forces or partners have violated human rights laws and to submit a report on U.S. strategy in Yemen. The bill also extends authority for U.S. payments for civilian casualties.
The overall defense policy plan appears to build on momentum to grow the size and might of the military in response to China and Russia's growing capabilities as laid out in Trump's $686.1 billion defense budget proposed earlier this year. The Trump request for fiscal year 2019 included an increase of more than 15,000 active-duty troops, which was matched in the defense plan approved Thursday in the House.
"This legislation will strengthen our military's readiness, provide our troops a pay raise, support effective implementation of the National Defense Strategy, drive further innovation in emerging technologies to secure our military advantage and continue to reform the Department of Defense," said Thornberry and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., respectively the chairman, ranking Democratic member and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The group issued a joint statement Monday after unveiling the NDAA conference report.
With a two-year spending deal that lifts budget caps already in place, mid-term elections this fall and a more experienced administration, lawmakers are eager to pass the 2019 NDAA earlier than in recent years.
Earlier this year, a budget deal allowed Congress to break imposed spending caps and increase the defense bill to $716 billion for 2019.
But as the defense bill remains on track to pass by Oct. 1, some challenges remain.
The NDAA still needs companion legislation that actually appropriates the funding and there are concerns that lawmakers still won't have that bill ready in time for the start of the 2019 fiscal year.
Last month, the House passed its defense appropriations measure, H.R. 6187, in a vote of 359 to 49. The Senate has yet to debate the matter.
This, as the White House has threatened a government shutdown if money isn't available for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. And other concerns could derail attention given the bill, such as an upcoming debate on Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court.
In such a case of a delay in funding, it's possible lawmakers might consider another temporary spending measure, which is known as a continuing resolution.