Senate Passes $768 Billion Defense Bill, Sending It to Biden

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday passed a $768 billion defense bill, sending legislation to President Biden that will increase the Pentagon’s budget by roughly $24 billion more than he requested.

The bill, which angered antiwar progressives who had hoped Democrats’ unified control of Washington would lead to significant cuts in military spending, passed overwhelmingly on a 89-10 vote. It includes significant increases for initiatives intended to counter China and bolster Ukraine, as well as for more ships, jets, and fighter planes than the Pentagon requested.

The lopsided votes, both in the Senate and the House, which passed the legislation last week, underscored the bipartisan commitment in Congress to increase federal spending on defense initiatives, as lawmakers cited rising threats from China and Russia and previewed a looming race over military technology.

“Our nation faces an enormous range of security challenges,” said Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “To that end, this bill makes great progress. It addresses a road range of pressing issues from strategic competition with China and Russia, to disruptive technologies like hypersonics, A.I. and quantum computing, to modernizing our ships, aircraft and vehicles.”

That focus — shifting attention away from on the ground conflicts in the Middle East in favor of a renewed concentration on Beijing and Moscow — echoes the foreign policy vision Mr. Biden outlined this summer as he ended America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan.

But even as Congress embraced that approach, members could not bring themselves to accept Mr. Biden’s request to keep military spending essentially flat, as both Democrats and Republicans instead linked arms in support of substantial increases.

The legislation contains a 2.7 percent pay increase for the troops, and a painstakingly negotiated compromise to strip military commanders of authority over sexual assault cases and many other serious crimes. The new provision places such crimes under independent military prosecutors in a move that had long been opposed by military leaders and presidents. Both Mr. Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III endorsed the shift earlier this year.

But what was omitted from the legislation was just as significant. The defense policy bill has typically been considered a must-pass item, and the House and the Senate usually craft and pass their own bills separately, considering dozens of amendments along the way, before negotiating a compromise version.

This year, the process collapsed after the Senate neither passed its own defense bill nor considered any amendments. Top congressional officials instead met behind closed doors in recent days to cobble together a bill that could quickly pass both chambers before the end of the year.

Stripped from the legislation was a measure requiring women to register with the Selective Service System for the first time in American history, as well as new sanctions on a Russian gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2.

Leaders of the armed services committees also excluded a House-passed provision 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 had been expected to win broad bipartisan backing in the Senate, part of a growing push underway in Congress to reassert itself on matters of war and peace and rethink presidential powers.

But that debate was pushed off for another day amid other disputes.

Also scrapped was a provision that would place visa bans on any foreign individuals that American intelligence officials found responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Proponents of the legislation argued that despite the choppy process, senators had ultimately united to back crucial investments to maintain military supremacy.

“The security situation with both China and Russia has gotten far worse since the Armed Services Committee first advanced this bill back in July,” said Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. “It’s gotten worse every few days, certainly each week. I can’t think of a more necessary bill to pass right now.”

“I know defense isn’t President Biden’s top priority, but we showed it is a bipartisan priority in this Congress,” Mr. Inhofe added.

The bill 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.

The annual defense bill earmarks spending priorities for the Pentagon’s budget but does not provide the funding to implement the policies it sets. That process is carried out through the defense appropriations process, which is still ongoing.

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