Big pay raise for troops in defense bill sent to Biden. Conservatives stymied on cultural issues

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House passed a defense policy bill Thursday that authorizes the biggest pay raise for troops in more than two decades, overcoming objections from some conservatives concerned the measure did not do enough to restrict the Pentagon’s diversity initiatives, abortion travel policy and gender-affirming health care for transgender service members.

The $886 billion bill was approved by a vote of 310-118 and now goes to President Joe Biden after the Senate had overwhelmingly passed it Wednesday. It is likely the last piece of major legislation Congress will consider before leaving for the holiday break, though negotiations continue on a bill to aid Ukraine and Israel and boost border security.

The spending called for represents about a 3% increase from the prior year. The bill serves as a blueprint for programs Congress will seek to fund through follow-up spending bills.

Lawmakers have been negotiating a final defense policy bill for months after each chamber passed strikingly different versions in July. Some of the priorities championed by social conservatives were a no-go for Democrats. Negotiators dropped them from the final version to get it over the finish line.

That did not go over well with some Republican lawmakers, though most did end up voting for a bill that traditionally has broad, bipartisan support. About twice as many Republicans voted for the bill as voted against it.

“You almost feel like a parent who’s sent a child off to summer camp and they came back a monster,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said in opposing the bill. “That’s what we’ve done. This bill came back in far worse shape.”

As an example, Gaetz said the House bill eliminated the position of the chief diversity officer at the Defense Department, but the final measure did not include that provision.

Washington Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, chided the bill’s critics for what he described as an unwillingness to compromise.

“Apparently, you don’t like democracy because that’s what democracy is. You compromise and you work with people and you do it all the time,” Smith said.

Most notably, the bill does not include language sought by House Republicans to restrict gender-affirming health care for transgender service members and it does not block the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy, which allows reimbursement for travel expenses when a service member has to go out of state for an abortion or other reproductive care.

Republicans did win some concessions on diversity and inclusion training in the military. For example, the bill freezes hiring for such training until a full accounting of the programming and costs is completed and reported to Congress.

One of the most divisive aspects of the bill was a short-term extension of a surveillance program aimed at preventing terrorism and catching spies. The program has detractors on both sides of the political aisle who view it as a threat to the privacy of ordinary Americans.

Some House Republicans were incensed that the extension was included in the defense policy bill and not voted upon separately through other legislation that included proposed changes to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

The extension continues a tool that permits the U.S. government to collect without a warrant the communications of non-Americans located outside the country to gather foreign intelligence.

U.S. officials have said the tool, first authorized in 2008 and renewed several times since then, is crucial in disrupting terror attacks, cyber intrusions and other national security threats. It has produced vital intelligence that the U.S. has relied on for specific operations, such as the killing last year of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

But the administration’s efforts to secure reauthorization of the program have encountered strong bipartisan pushback. Lawmakers are demanding better privacy protections for those Americans caught up in the monitoring. They wanted a separate vote on legislation making changes to the program.

“The FBI under President Biden has been weaponized against the American people and major reform is needed,” said Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont. “FISA should not be combined with our national defense. And it is unacceptable that leadership is bypassing regular order to jam members by forcing them to vote on two unrelated bills with one vote.”

Matthew G. Olsen, an assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, praised the passage of the extension.

He said: “We cannot afford to be blinded to the many threats we face from foreign adversaries, including Iran and China, as well as terrorist organizations like Hamas and ISIS,” or the Islamic State group.

Enough opposition to the bill had developed within the GOP ranks that it forced House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., to tee up the defense policy bill for a vote through a process generally reserved for noncontroversial legislation.

Under that process, at least two-thirds of the House had to vote in favor of the legislation for it to pass, but going that route avoided the prospect of a small number of Republicans blocking it from the floor.

Consideration of the bill comes at a dangerous time for the world, with wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, and as China increasingly flexes its military might in the South China Sea.

On Ukraine, the bill includes the creation of a special inspector general for Ukraine to address concerns about whether taxpayer dollars are being spent in Ukraine as intended. That’s on top of oversight work already being conducted by other agency watchdogs.

“We will continue to stay on top of this, but I want to assure my colleagues that there has been no evidence of diversion of weapons provided to Ukraine or any other assistance,” GOP Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told lawmakers this week in advocating for the bill.

Ukraine’s supporters in Congress have argued that helping Kyiv now could prevent a wider war if Russia were to invade a member of NATO, the military alliance that maintains that an attack against one member nation is considered an attack against all.

The bill includes provisions by Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that says the president must get the advice and consent of the Senate or an act of Congress before withdrawing U.S. membership from NATO. That seems to have in mind former President Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, who has said he will continue to “fundamentally reevaluate” NATO’s purpose and mission.

On China, the bill establishes a new training program with Taiwan, requires a plan to accelerate deliveries of Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Taiwan, and approves an agreement that enables Australia to access nuclear-powered submarines, which are stealthier and more capable than conventionally powered vessels.

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Associated Press staff writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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