The Senate on Friday approved a sweeping defense policy bill that authorizes the Obama administration to expand its military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant but bucks the Pentagon on many efforts to cut costs.
The $585 billion National Defense Authorization Act passed the Senate handily, 89-11, and is headed to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it.
The bill, passed by Congress for the 53rd straight year, provides the administration a two-year authority to train and equip moderate Syrian rebel groups, as well as $5 billion in funding for operations against ISIL.
It also includes restrictions opposed by the administration to transfer detainees from the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But they have been included in past bills that were signed by the president.
This year’s NDAA is the last for the retiring chairmen of the two Armed Services Committees, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), and the title of the bill includes both their names.
Levin and the Senate got the defense bill over the finish line despite some bumps — and without the Senate considering amendments. The two Armed Services Committees were forced to conference informally to finish the bill, which stalled briefly over a dispute about troop benefits.
On the Senate floor this week, supporters had to overcome a filibuster by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who objected to the inclusion of an unrelated package of lands swaps that was added to the measure at the eleventh hour.
Coburn, whose proposal to strip out the lands package was defeated Friday before the final vote, said it represented “the worst of Washington.”
“Because what we’ve added to a must-pass bill is things that are very low, low priority in terms of the long-term priorities of the country and the fiscal soundness of the country, but the really high priorities for the politicians in this body,” Coburn said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, defended the lands deal, arguing it was forged by committee leaders from both parties in both the House and the Senate.
“It’s tough to win the undivided attention of the Senate on some of these measures, but just because it doesn’t rise to the level of keen interest here in this body doesn’t mean that these aren’t critically important for individuals, communities and states around our country,” Murkowski said.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he disagreed with the addition of the lands package but argued the rest of the bill was too important to the military not to approve.
He also urged his party’s leaders next year to consider the bill earlier in the year and with amendments, as outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has repeatedly pushed it back to one of the last items of the year.
“The problem is [the House was] able to pass theirs on the floor; we were not,” Inhofe said. “It’s something that we really should have done a long time ago, and I’m hoping that we have learned a lesson from last year and this year — that we’re not going to let this happen again.”
The NDAA authorizes $521 billion in base defense spending, along with $64 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funding for Afghanistan, the war against ISIL, and the president’s proposed European Reassurance Initiative and counterterrorism fund.
The bill reverses the Pentagon’s budget request on numerous issues, beating back the Defense Department’s efforts to retire weapons systems and cut pay and benefits.
The bill prohibits the Air Force from retiring the A-10 Warthog and the U-2 spy plane and blocks a Navy plan to lay up 11 cruisers, allowing only two to be mothballed.
The bill includes $450 million in unrequested funding for Boeing EA-18G Growlers — appropriators included $1.46 billion in the defense appropriations bill — and it provides funding to begin refueling the USS George Washington aircraft carrier.
The NDAA also places restrictions on an Army plan to move its National Guard Apache helicopter fleet into the active Army, allowing only 48 helicopters to be transferred in the next year.
Pentagon officials have warned that congressional meddling in the defense budget that rejects cost-cutting will have a harmful impact as the Defense Department grapples with tightened budgets and sequestration looming again for fiscal 2016.
The final sticking point was over troop benefits. Both the House-passed bill and the Senate Armed Services measure rejected most of the Pentagon’s cost-cutting proposals, from cuts to commissaries to TRICARE health increases to a new round of base closures.
But the Senate panel included two budget-cutting Pentagon proposals — an increase to TRICARE pharmacy co-pays and cuts to the basic housing allowance — that the House had rejected. After some wrangling before the Thanksgiving recess, the two committee chairmen agreed to a compromise that would allow a $3 one-year increase to the pharmacy co-pays and a 1 percent reduction in the housing benefit.
The bill also effectively limited troops’ annual pay raise to 1 percent, the Pentagon’s proposed increase, by staying silent on the matter rather than including a 1.8 percent raise.
On Guantánamo, the bill maintains restrictions that have been included in previous defense authorization measures.
Levin had inserted a provision into his bill to ease restrictions on U.S. detainee transfers, but it was removed in the final compromise. Also stricken was a ban on transferring Guantánamo detainees to Yemen, as proponents of the detention facility have advocated.