House panel advances $778B defense bill

The House Armed Services Committee late Wednesday approved its $778 billion defense policy bill after a more than 16-hour session to consider the measure.

The panel voted 57-2 to advance its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) just after 2:30 a.m. Thursday morning.

The two “no” votes came from Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Sara Jacobs (Calif.), who opposed the price tag.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) wrote a $744 billion bill that, when accounting for defense funding outside the committee’s jurisdiction, largely aligned with President Biden’s request for a $753 billion defense budget for fiscal 2022.

But on Wednesday, 14 Democrats sided with a Republican amendment to add another $25 billion to the defense budget, bulking it up to the $778 billion total.

While the end result of the markup was a bipartisan vote, the approval came after a marathon markup that included partisan debates on everything from the withdrawal from Afghanistan to critical race theory to the overall size of the defense budget.

The markup also came just days after the U.S. military completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan after a 20-year war, an ending marked by chaos and death as civilians sought to flee Taliban rule and terrorists killed scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.

Lawmakers in both parties, even some Democrats who support the underlying idea of withdrawing, have criticized the Biden administration’s execution of the withdrawal, particularly the lack of planning to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans before Kabul fell to the Taliban.

But Republicans seized on the issue Wednesday and Thursday morning to force Democrats into votes aimed at rebuking Biden for the withdrawal.

Among the GOP amendments, one from Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) would have declared Congress “has lost confidence in President Biden’s ability to perform his duties as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces.” Democrats defeated it in a 28-31 party-line vote.

But several other Afghanistan amendments elicited bipartisan support, including requirements for reports on military equipment abandoned in Afghanistan, the security situation in Afghanistan, threats posed by al Qaeda on plans for “over the horizon” counterterrorism operations and continued efforts to retrieve Americans and Afghan allies left in the country.

Republicans also sought to inject their culture wars into the defense bill debate, including offering amendments that would have banned the military, its service academies and Defense Department-funded grade schools from the “promotion” of what one of the measures described as “anti-American and racist theories, such as ‘critical race theory.’” The amendments failed in party-line votes.

Republicans have targeted critical race theory, a decades-old legal framework examining the intersection of race and law, amid the Pentagon efforts to root out extremists and expand diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the military.

After Democrats balked at the GOP critical race theory amendments, they approved creating a new Office of Countering Extremism within the Pentagon and to allow service members to be discharged for knowingly sharing extremist content online in a 31-28 vote on an amendment from Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.).

Meanwhile, the underlying NDAA aims to tackle military sexual assault by removing the decision to prosecute sexual assault and related crimes from the chain of command, instead creating special victims prosecutors.

While some lawmakers have pushed to go further and remove all serious crimes from the chain of command, no amendments were offered at the markup to do so.

The committee also approved in a 35-24 vote an amendment that would require women to register for the draft.

Other amendments that were approved included one to block the use of private funds for National Guard deployments across state lines. The amendment was a response to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) deploying her state’s National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year using funding from a private donor.

The committee also approved an amendment to make it harder to appoint a recently retired general as Defense secretary by increasing the cooling-off period to 10 years and requiring a two-thirds vote in Congress to waive the law. The amendment comes after Congress granted both Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and former Defense Secretary James Mattis waivers to bypass the current law barring recently retired generals from leading the Pentagon.

Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) offered an amendment aimed at restricting the transfer of military-grade weapons to local police departments, as first reported by The Hill. But she withdrew it without a vote because she said she was “just a bit short of the support that I need in order to pass this.”