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Senate passes defense bill with bipartisan support, but clash looms with House over social issues

Senate passage, 86-11, sets up a clash with the House, which passed its own version of the annual defense bill along party lines earlier this month

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), with Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), holds a press conference after the weekly Democratic caucus policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. July 19, 2023.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), with Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), holds a press conference after the weekly Democratic caucus policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. July 19, 2023.JONATHAN ERNST (REUTERS)

The Senate has passed a massive annual defense bill that would deliver a 5.2% pay raise for service members and keep the nation’s military operating, avoiding partisan policy battles with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote.

Senate passage, 86-11, sets up a clash with the House, which passed its own version of the annual defense bill along party lines earlier this month after pointed debates over social issues like abortion access and diversity initiatives. The sharply partisan arguments over the House legislation veered from a bipartisan tradition of finding consensus on national defense policy.

The strong bipartisan vote for the legislation in the Senate Thursday evening, just before the Senate left for its August recess, could give it momentum as the two chambers next look to settle their differences in the fall.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said there is a “glaring contrast” between the two chambers’ defense bills. The Senate had no “animus or acrimony,” in contrast to the House’s partisan battles, he said.

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that “I don’t think either party got exactly what they wanted” in the Senate bill. But he said the legislation would help the military improve recruitment and prevent conflict.

The two chambers will now have to write a final bill, a test of the deeply divided House, in particular, as the traditionally bipartisan legislation was swept up in the disputes over race, equity and women’s health care that have been political priorities for the Republican party.

Wicker said talks with the House will start “very soon” and he feels confident they will be able to pass the legislation, as Congress has annually since 1961.

“We always have,” Wicker said.

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., a member of the Armed Services panel, predicted the bipartisan Senate approach would mostly prevail.

“The fact that we’re going to have a strong bipartisan approach on it says that we’re probably closer to where we’re going to end up than what the House has done on a partisan basis,” said Rounds.

The massive Senate defense bill would set defense spending levels at $886 billion for the coming year, similar to President Joe Biden’s budget request. Congress has to pass separate spending legislation to allocate the money, but the defense legislation lays out budget and policy for the Pentagon.

The House debate earlier this month was marked by amendments from hardline conservatives that were adopted and pushed the bill to the right — including proposals to roll back diversity and inclusion measures at the Pentagon and to block some medical care for transgender personnel.

In the Senate, where most amendments need 60 votes to pass, additions to the bill were bipartisan and more focused on military policy, with many focused on countering potential American adversaries like Russia and China.

One bipartisan provision would require two-thirds of the Senate to approve if a U.S. president tries to withdraw from NATO. Former President Donald Trump, who is running again for his old office, has been deeply critical of the military alliance and repeatedly questioned its value to the U.S.

Rounds also joined with Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana to successfully push an amendment to the bill that would prevent agents of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea from purchasing agricultural land in the U.S. Another bipartisan duo, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Bob Casey, D-Pa., pushed an amendment to increase Treasury Department oversight of U.S. investment into Russian and Chinese technology firms that work with “sensitive technology,” such as semiconductors and artificial intelligence.

Another provision that won support from both parties would allow the Treasury Department to use sanctions against people and organizations involved in the international fentanyl trade.

Also included is language sponsored by Schumer requiring the government to collect records relating to " unidentified aerial phenomena " — the official term the U.S. government uses instead of unidentified flying objects — and review whether they need to stay classified. The amendment would allow the release of some of those records over time.

Still unresolved, though, is Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s refusal to allow the quick confirmation of hundreds of military nominations and promotions in the Senate. Tuberville is protesting the Defense Department’s abortion policy, which covers the cost of travel for service members seeking abortion and reproductive care.

Tuberville has shown little interest in backing down even as some of his fellow Republican senators have encouraged him to drop it. He is preventing quick action on over 260 nominations of senior military officers, including a commandant for the U.S. Marine Corps and others, frustrating leaders at the Pentagon and his own colleagues.

The House bill contains a provision that would end the Defense Department’s new abortion policy. But that would not pass the Democratic-led Senate.

Biden called Tuberville’s hold “outrageous” in a speech at the National Archives Thursday evening.

“There is a growing cascade of damage and disruption all because of one senator from Alabama,” Biden said.

Biden’s administration did appear to work out a deal on nominations with a different Republican senator late Thursday. After meetings with State Department officials during the day, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul released his holds on several department nominees. The Senate later confirmed more than a dozen ambassadors, including former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell as ambassador to Italy.

Hours earlier, Paul told reporters he was working with the department to receive more information on projects in China that were funded by the U.S. government.

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