House passes $700B compromise defense bill

The House on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a $700 billion compromise defense policy bill that would authorize a military buildup beyond that proposed by President Donald Trump, but vastly exceed the cap on defense spending to fund it.

The vote was 356-70.

The Senate will debate the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act after Thanksgiving and is expected to handily approve it and send it to the president for his signature.

With fewer contentious issues than in previous years, the annual legislation was hammered out by House and Senate Armed Services leaders in just a few weeks.

In all, the measure would authorize nearly $700 billion in national defense spending. Within that, the bill endorses $626.4 billion in base spending, including $20.6 billion for nuclear national security programs under the Energy Department. And it would authorize $65.7 billion for a separate Pentagon war account.

The legislation, which tallies of dollars more than Trump’s $603 billion budget request, would authorize more spending for missile defense technology to counter North Korea, more ships and fighters, and would continue to rebuild the Army.

On the floor Tuesday, House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) called the bill a down payment on a yearslong military buildup.

"We will not rebuild and fix our problems in one year or one bill … but we can head in the right direction," Thornberry said. "That’s what this conference report does."

But the final NDAA is also tens of billions of dollars above the $549 billion cap on national defense spending set by the Budget Control Act for the current 2018 fiscal year.

House and Senate leaders must strike a budget deal that increases the caps in order to boost defense spending as prescribed by the bill, approved on Tuesday by the House.

"It goes $80 billion, roughly, over the budget caps, and the bill can’t do that on its own," said House Armed Services ranking Democrat Adam Smith of Washington state.

"Unless the budget caps are lifted and the appropriators pass the appropriations bill, that doesn’t happen," Smith said. "And we haven’t made a lot of progress on that."

The final measure includes a 2.4 percent troop pay raise, higher than the 2.1 percent sought by the Pentagon.

It would authorize 90 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 20 more than the Pentagon requested, and 24 Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets, 10 more than requested. And it would boost Navy shipbuilding by authorizing 13 new ships, five more than requested, including an extra Littoral Combat Ship, destroyer and amphibious ship.

The bill would also authorize more personnel in the active-duty military services and Reserves.

Notably, the Army would grow by 7,500 active-duty soldiers and the active-duty Marine Corps would increase by 1,000. The Air Force would grow by 4,100 active-duty personnel. And the Navy would increase by 4,000 active-duty personnel.

The legislation also continues efforts, spearheaded by Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), to shake up the Pentagon’s senior leadership ranks.

It would establish the Pentagon’s newly created chief management officer as the third most senior post and give it more information technology functions performed by the chief information officer.

The final NDAA compromise would also eliminate one assistant secretary of Defense and limit the total number of deputy assistant secretaries to 48.

Additionally, the bill includes a series of provisions aimed at streamlining the Pentagon’s acquisition process, including a proposal pushed by Thornberry to set up an online marketplace for purchasing commercial products.

Lawmakers, however, dropped a House-backed proposal to create a new Space Corps under the Air Force.

Instead, the final bill would require an independent plan to establish a separate service responsible for space as well as a slew of changes to streamline national security space acquisitions and operations.

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