Showdown Looming: Senate Takes Moderate Route, House Pushes Culture Wars in Annual Defense Bill

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Storm clouds darken the skies above the Capitol in Washington
Storm clouds darken the skies above the Capitol in Washington, Monday, June 12, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Two versions of the sweeping defense policy bill -- the annual legislation that sets nearly all military priorities and policies, from troop pay raises to weapons systems -- have cleared the House and Senate.

That may have been the easy part.

The two chambers will now have to find common ground on the starkly different versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. The Senate version is a bipartisan blueprint for military policy, and the House's is a partisan culture war battlefield.

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The coming political fight was set up Thursday, when the Senate passed its version of the NDAA in a bipartisan 86-11 vote. In doing so, the upper chamber avoided stepping on political land mines such as abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.

"It's a stark contrast from the partisan race to the bottom we saw in the House," Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor. "House Republicans should look to the bipartisan Senate to see how to get things done."

The Senate bill focuses on the more prosaic military issues typically addressed by the NDAA, such as a 5.2% pay raise for troops; ensuring service members have safe living conditions; and authorizing weapons systems and programs intended to compete with China.

But the Senate will now need to link up with the House, which passed its version of the NDAA along mostly party lines after loading it with amendments off conservative lawmakers' wish lists.

"We have shown the way," House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., said earlier this month when asked about the likelihood of the Senate rejecting the GOP NDAA amendments. "You have to know that we are not going to relent, we are not going to back down, we are not going to give up on the cause that it is righteous."

While the House NDAA also includes the 5.2% pay raise -- the largest increase in two decades -- and other everyday military issues, it is also stacked with GOP amendments that restrict troops' ability to travel off-base for abortions, ban gender-affirming health care for transgender troops, and end diversity programs at the Pentagon.

A similar dynamic is playing out in the annual appropriations process, which sets actual spending levels for the military. There, the stakes of not reaching an agreement include a potential government shutdown in the fall or winter if Congress buys more time with a stopgap spending measure.

Also on Thursday, the House approved the annual Department of Veterans Affairs spending bill with policy riders to restrict the VA's ability to provide abortions and gender-affirming care; fly LGBTQ+ Pride flags; and change its motto to recognize female veterans, as well as all surviving spouses and family members. The bill passed with only Republican support as every Democrat voted against it, and the White House has threatened to veto the bill.

A version of the annual Pentagon spending bill advanced by the House Appropriations Committee also contains anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ provisions similar to what's in the NDAA.

By contrast, the Senate legislation has taken a more moderate path. The Senate Appropriations Committee has advanced VA and Pentagon spending bills with bipartisan support, eschewing any partisan policy provisions.

The Senate has not said when the full chamber will take up its annual spending bills. But when lawmakers return from their just-started summer break in September, they will have roughly three weeks to hash out a government funding agreement before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Lawmakers could also approve a stopgap spending measure to keep the government open until they can agree to a more comprehensive spending plan.

Because the NDAA is a policy bill, not a spending bill, lawmakers have more time to get it across the finish line. But failing to pass an NDAA into law by the end of the calendar year would mean authorities for several types of special and incentive pay expire.

Senate Republicans were able to get some of their anti-diversity, equity and inclusion targets into the upper chamber's bill, namely provisions to cap pay for Pentagon employees in charge of diversity efforts and impose a hiring freeze for new diversity personnel. But because Democrats narrowly control the Senate and because legislation in the upper chamber requires 60 votes to pass, senators avoided the most politically charged issues.

The Senate's two-week debate on its NDAA also saw several bipartisan amendments pass, including one to restrict a president's ability to withdraw from NATO without Senate consent -- a response to fears a future President Donald Trump could try to leave the alliance, as he frequently expressed a desire to do in his first term.

After the NDAA passed the Senate, Democrats expressed confidence they would come out on top in upcoming negotiations with the House. Democrats consider the House's abortion provision in particular to be a red line. That provision would undo the Pentagon's recently implemented policy to cover travel and leave for troops who need abortions.

"We're going into to conference with the position that the Senate basically has concluded that the policy of the Department of Defense is both legal and one that should be retained," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., told reporters, referencing a failed vote his committee held to rescind the policy. "We're going to stick to that position, and I think we will prevail."

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., also told Military.com after his chamber's NDAA vote that he expects the final product after negotiations with the Senate will be bipartisan.

But the far-right members of the House who demanded the anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ provisions in the House NDAA have shown a willingness -- and ability -- to hold the House hostage to extract concessions.

The same lawmakers put the House through 15 rounds of voting on the speakership in January in order to secure guarantees from Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and in June ground the House to halt to rebuke McCarthy for reaching a debt limit deal with the White House.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: GOP Uses Must-Pass Defense Bill to Thwack at Abortion, Transgender Troops as Legislation Passes House

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