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The House overwhelmingly passed a $717 billion defense policy bill on Thursday, despite concerns from some lawmakers over provisions that would endorse a new class of tactical nuclear weapons and seek cuts to a slew of Pentagon support agencies.
The vote was 351 to 66.
Advocates of the National Defense Authorization Act said the legislation would build on promises by President Donald Trump and defense hawks on Capitol Hill to build up U.S. military might.
"The best way to summarize this bill is that it takes the next steps," Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said on the House floor. "The next steps to rebuilding our military and reforming the Pentagon, the next steps towards strengthening our country’s national security."
The Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, approved it version of the annual policy bill in closed session Wednesday. But Senate leaders have not yet said when they plan consider the legislation.
A whopping 131 Democrats joined 220 Republicans to support the measure. Only seven Republicans broke with their party to oppose the bill.
The bill’s wide passage Thursday also stands in stark contrast to the disastrous failure last week of the House farm bill another must-pass policy measure.
The defense legislation garnered broad support from House Democrats despite a provision that would authorize new low-yield submarine-launched nuclear warheads called for by the Trump administration’s recent Nuclear Posture Review. Democrats were largely united in opposition to the new tactical nuclear weapons, warning they could be destabilizing and normalize nuclear exchanges.
“This bill … pushes us even further and faster down the path to war, toward a new nuclear arms race,” warned Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.). “Does it make us safer to have a low-yield nuclear weapon on one of our submarines? Probably not.”
Democrats offered amendments to limit funding for the warheads and place other restrictions on nuclear spending. But those proposals were defeated amid Republican criticism that Democrats were trying to slow nuclear modernization efforts and that the weapons are needed to meet a growing nuclear threat from Russia, which has such low-yield nuclear weapons.
The bill also includes a series of overhauls to the Pentagon’s administrative and support agencies, one of Thornberry’s signature efforts this year. The bill would eliminate the much-maligned Washington Headquarters Service and seek a 25 percent cut in certain “back office” functions of those non-military agencies.
Thornberry’s aim is to free up more money for front-line troops, but the reform package has some lawmakers, defense industry groups and federal employee unions dyspeptic over the loss of critical defense functions and civilian jobs. The Trump administration also objected to the proposal. And, along the way, Thornberry scaled it back.
In all, the bill would authorize $717 billion in national defense spending. Within that, $617 billion is dedicated to the base Pentagon budget and $22 billion would be authorized for nuclear weapons programs overseen by the Energy Department. Another $69 billion would be for U.S. war efforts abroad.
The bill could very well mark the peak for defense budget in the near term. The sky-high defense spending levels may not be sustainable for long, as the federal budget deficit will soon exceed $1 trillion annually, thanks in part to a massive tax cut passed by Republicans late last year.
“The Department of Defense is one of the biggest,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top House Armed Services Democrat. “As the largest portion of the discretionary budget they pay the highest price when we don’t get ourselves on a fiscally responsible path."
The bill would continue a military buildup, led by Republican defense hawks, launched by a two-year budget deal that boosted caps on defense spending by $165 billion over two years. And it would make fewer changes to the administration’s budget request than previous years as a result.
The bill would green-light a 2.6 percent military pay raise, equal to the administration’s request and the largest increase in troop pay in nearly a decade.
The legislation would continue to grow the size of the military services, adding more than 16,000 active-duty and Reserve troops. But unlike recent years, the bill would not add any personnel beyond the Pentagon’s budget request.
It also calls for a boost in Navy shipbuilding. The bill would procure 13 ships — three more than the Navy requested in its annual shipbuilding budget. It would boost shipbuilding accounts by $1.9 billion above the request and fund three extra ships — a new aircraft carrier and two more Littoral Combat Ships.
The legislation also would purchase 77 next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters — even with the administration’s budget request — but it would allow the Pentagon to buy more F-35s through cost cutting and production efficiencies.