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House lays out demands for Pentagon over Russia, extremism, inflation

U.S. Navy helicopters fly alongside the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Ionian Sea on July 3. (MC2 Crayton Agnew/U.S. Navy)

House lawmakers on Thursday approved an $840 billion plan to direct Pentagon policy and spending in the year ahead, lending strong bipartisan support to legislation aiming to help the United States better compete with China technologically, address mistakes made during last year’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, improve scrutiny of the military aid supplied to Ukraine and target a rise in domestic extremism.

The vote was 329 to 101.

The legislation, considered one of the few “must-pass” bills Congress authors each year, is yet to be reconciled with the Senate’s version. The text of that document has not been made public and is expected to reshape some how much money will be directed toward the Defense Department. Implementing the defense bill will also be subject to congressional appropriations, which have not been finalized — and may not cover all of the programs authorized in the legislation.

The House bill devotes considerable attention to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s breakthroughs in hypersonic weapons and other cutting-edge military technology, and rampant inflation that is battering the U.S. economy. It also directs military leaders to analyze the dangers posed by individuals in uniform who espouse white-supremacist beliefs, neo-Nazism and antisemitism. The legislation specifically mentions the Proud Boys, a far-right group whose prominent role last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol has been an intense focus of federal prosecutors and the House select committee running a parallel investigation.

The Pentagon vowed to confront extremism in the ranks. After Jan. 6, experts say more must be done.

The bipartisan endorsement reflected in Thursday’s vote did not accompany every provision. For instance, all Republicans voted against a measure requiring a report to Congress on efforts to combat threats posed by white supremacy and neo-Nazism in the ranks. Other amendments that fell mostly along party lines included directives to stream online the legal proceedings of Guantánamo Bay detainees, establish certain fair-labor standards for military contractors, and guarantee victims of harassment and discrimination that their cases will be heard within 180 days.

On Russia, in addition to demanding that the U.S. military in Europe detach itself from the Kremlin’s energy supplies, the House voted this week to prevent Moscow from trading in gold or rejoining international organizations. Lawmakers also ordered the Pentagon to implement within six months better accounting practices for all of the U.S. military assistance being sent to Ukraine, and instructed the Department of Defense Inspector General to report biannually on the U.S. response to Russian aggression.

As Ukraine war bogs down, U.S. assessments face scrutiny

The bill calls for a study of what resources NATO needs to deter Russian aggression and devotes $100 million in funding to train Ukrainian pilots — a signal of Congress’s intent to invest in Kyiv’s ability to fight in the skies as well as on the ground.

On China, lawmakers backed measures regarding its expanding global footprint and to cement U.S. relations with Taiwan, including feasibility studies to enhance military cooperation.

On Afghanistan, while the underlying bill called for improvements to the convoluted visa processing system that resulted in thousands of American allies being left behind after U.S. personnel withdrew, the House added several amendments intended to “surge capacity” for bringing more eligible Afghans to the United States. Those include directions for removing requirements that Afghans applying for student visas must declare their intent to return to Afghanistan, and for the Pentagon to craft plans for reimbursing U.S. service members and veterans who helped evacuate visa-eligible Afghans at personal expense.

Some of the amendments endorsed by the House are likely to complicate foreign policy priorities for President Biden, including one provision that would temporarily halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia over the slaying of journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Biden is in Saudi Arabia, attempting a reset of relations with the leaders who the U.S. government believes ordered the killing.

There is also a provision to prohibit selling any F-16s to Turkey without the Biden administration first providing certain guarantees of how they will be used — a restriction that could complicate efforts to dissuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s resistance to Sweden and Finland joining NATO.

House tries to avoid messy political battles over Pentagon policy bill

Many of the provisions added to the defense bill this week were designed to improve working conditions for service members at a time when military families are facing mounting economic and health challenges. The House voted to expand upon a 4.6 percent pay increase for personnel with an additional 2.4 percent bump — “inflation pay” — for those making $45,000 and a signal to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that he can increase that amount if the inflation rate worsens.

The House also voted in a series of amendments to expand investments in military health care, with a particular focus on addressing toxic exposure and treating mental health. Among them is a provision that would greenlight research into whether ecstasy and other psychedelic drugs are viable substitutes for opioids or as treatment for post traumatic stress.

While the bill sidesteps the national abortion debate playing out in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to repeal Roe v. Wade, it directs the Pentagon to carry out various steps to address reproductive health, including a pilot program aimed at preventing unwanted pregnancies. It demands new demographic tracking by the military when it comes to medical personnel reports, part of a general trend toward addressing disparities in race, ethnicity and gender identity.

Finally, the bill contains measures the House has endorsed in years past but have failed to become law. Among them are provisions to repeal authorizations for use of military force passed in 2002, 1991 and 1957 to approve military operations in the Middle East. Also included in the legislation are orders to eliminate federal sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, allow cannabis businesses access the U.S. banking system, and grant the mayor of D.C. the same authority as all the 50 states’ governors to mobilize the National Guard for local emergencies.