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The United States is building up its military might “like we never have before,” President Donald Trump touted on Monday as he put the finishing touches on a massive $717 billion defense policy bill.
Flanked by troops from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., Trump signed the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act — the first such measure in over two decades to become law before the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year.
The final bill passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly earlier this summer after leaders of the Armed Services committees plowed through a series of contentious issues in joint talks in just a few weeks.
Calling the military “depleted” prior to a recent budget deal that boosted defense spending, Trump told troops the massive bill would “give you the finest planes and ships and tanks and missiles.”
“After years of cuts, we’re now rebuilding our military like we never have before,” Trump said.
“Our country is respected again,” he declared. “There’s a big, beautiful difference.”
In all, the legislation authorizes $717 billion in national defense spending and continues efforts by Trump and Republican defense hawks to build up the military, which they contend has degraded amid years of partisan budget battles and needs steep and steady funding to meet growing worldwide threats.
In an ironic twist for Trump, the bill is named in honor of Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), the president’s chief Republican critic on national security issues.
McCain has been at home in Arizona since late last year as he battles brain cancer, but the acrimony between the two is long-standing.
Trump famously said during the 2016 presidential election that McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was not a war hero because he was captured. And among a slew of disagreements with the administration, McCain recently slammed Trump for being "unwilling to stand up to" Russian President Vladimir Putin at a July 16 meeting in Helsinki while questioning the U.S. commitment to the NATO alliance.
On Monday, Trump didn’t mention McCain at all.
Under the bill, the military would continue its recent expansion. The ranks of the active-duty military would grow by more than 15,000 and the Navy would procure 13 new warships, three more than requested. It also authorizes a 2.6 percent troop pay raise.
Under Trump, “the days of arbitrary budget cuts to our national defense are over," Vice President Mike Pence said as he introduced the president Monday in an elaborately staged signing ceremony after Trump’s 10-day working vacation at his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey.
While the bill won broad bipartisan support in Congress, critics of Trump’s policies contend those eye-popping levels of defense spending aren’t sustainable.
Despite a massive two-year budget deal hammered out in February, the Pentagon faces a $71 billion funding cliff in fiscal 2020 when strict caps on the defense budget are set to return. Meanwhile, the federal deficit is slated to top $1 trillion about then.
Still, the bill doesn’t provide any funding for the Pentagon, only authorizes it.
Lawmakers will next turn their attention to sending Trump a defense spending bill. The Senate is aiming to take up its version of the annual defense appropriations bill as early as this week. But House and Senate leaders nonetheless face an uphill climb to finalize the bill by the end of September.
In the wake of the bill’s blowout passage, defense hawks are pressing for the House and Senate Appropriations panels to finish their work on funding the military.
"It is now essential that we follow this bill with matching appropriations before the beginning of the fiscal year," House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said in a statement.
Notably, the legislation signed Monday includes a governmentwide ban on procuring equipment or services from Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE, whose technologies have been cited as cybersecurity risks. But it doesn’t undo a deal made by the Trump administration to lift sanctions on ZTE, as lawmakers from both parties had sought.
The measure also includes a major overhaul of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., which reviews acquisitions and mergers involving foreign companies that may have national security implications. The move is aimed at cracking down on Chinese access to sensitive U.S. technologies.