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Senate passes defense bill that arms U.S. allies, ends vaccine mandate

The $858 billion legislation, directing more military aid for Ukraine and Taiwan, now heads to President Biden for his signature

The U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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The Senate on Thursday voted to approve the annual defense policy bill, sending the $858 billion legislation to President Biden for his signature, though it remains unclear how many of the new initiatives it contains will be funded.

The bill, which passed by a vote of 83 to 11, directs how federal dollars can be spent on the Pentagon, the U.S. military and related programs. This year, it includes an expansion of funds for helping Ukraine fight off a protracted Russian invasion, a new program to supply Taiwan with unprecedented levels of security assistance, a pay raise for service members and measures to address rising costs due to inflation.

But with the two parties locked in a face-off over how to fund the federal government, it remains unclear exactly how much of the defense bill — which tops out at $45 billion more than the Biden administration wanted to spend on such initiatives next year — will be underwritten. Though the Senate on Thursday passed a measure to continue funding the government through next week, mirroring the House’s action and narrowly avoiding a shutdown, a deal on an omnibus spending measure to carry through 2023 remains incomplete.

The defense bill, which passed in the House last week by a vote of 350 to 80, came together after a series of high-stakes negotiations this fall, resulting in the Biden administration giving ground to Republicans on some key initiatives — including the Pentagon’s politically divisive mandate, issued in August 2021, that all military personnel be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

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Democrats were forced to capitulate to GOP demands to curtail the vaccine mandate after a large segment of the party threatened to withhold their support for the legislation otherwise. Republican leaders who cheered the deal to strike the mandate have since pledged to seek retribution for its existence, demanding reinstatement for service members discharged for refusing to take the vaccine, and warning they will investigate President Biden and his advisers for having ever instituted the requirement.

A GOP effort to provide remedies for service members discharged for failing to comply with the vaccine mandate failed to pass the Senate on Thursday, after more than half the chamber objected to tacking it onto the defense bill.

Several lawmakers have tried to add initiatives to the legislation, considered one of the few must-pass measures Congress considers each year, over the course of their negotiations. Democratic negotiators had to abandon an effort to attach legislation to the defense bill championed by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to restructure the way permits are awarded for energy infrastructure projects. A vote on the bill had been a key part of the deal to get Manchin, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to support the Inflation Reduction Act that passed Congress this summer and that Biden signed in August.

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Manchin did ultimately get that vote on Thursday, as an amendment to the defense policy bill. But it failed to secure support from the majority of the chamber, failing to pass on a 47-to-47 vote, despite Biden having strongly endorsed the legislation earlier in the day as a “critical” and important step” toward helping energy projects “to cut consumer cost and spur good-paying jobs.”

Had either amendment been approved in the Senate, it could have severely complicated the progress of the defense bill, which earned the approval of the House without the permitting legislation included.

Biden is expected to sign the legislation regardless, giving his stamp of approval — or in some cases acquiescence — to a 4.6 percent raise in base pay for service members and a number of new initiatives to militarily assist U.S. allies in the crosshairs of some of Washington’s main rivals.

Ukraine aid and military assistance for NATO allies are heavily addressed in the bill, in light of Russia’s ongoing invasion. Lawmakers directed more than $6 billion toward the European Deterrence Initiative — an increase of approximately $2 billion over last year’s levels — as well as $800 million in security assistance funds specifically dedicated for Ukraine. But the money comes with some strings attached: The bill requires a series of oversight and accounting measures, in the form of reports from the Pentagon and the inspectors general that oversee the Ukraine assistance operations, in a bid to better track the weapons being shipped to the front lines.

The measures, which have bipartisan backing, are an opening act of what is likely to come when Republicans assume control of the House next year. GOP leaders have already promised additional and more invasive audits, while sounding alarms that certain lethal weapons might end up on the black market if shipments are not more stringently policed — a suggestion that has earned sharp pushback from the administration officials in charge of weapons monitoring.

Pressure builds to step up weapons tracking in Ukraine

The bill also envisions an increased windfall for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, focused on countering China, by increasing the authorization for that pot of funds from slightly more than $7 billion last year to more than $11 billion in fiscal 2023. Over the next five years, the defense policy bill also seeks to devote $2 billion annually for Taiwan’s training and weapons purchases, plus another $1 billion annually in presidential drawdown authority — a category of assistance that allows the White House to send allies weapons from the U.S. stocks. The authority has been used frequently by the administration over the last year in its efforts to send arms to Ukraine swiftly.

The measure challenges the White House and the Pentagon when it comes to the U.S. nuclear arsenal, an increasing source of concern in Washington’s posture vis-a-vis rival powers Moscow and Beijing, which are both pursuing robust initiatives to update and expand their holdings. The Biden administration declared earlier this year that it would be retiring the B83-1, a megaton-plus gravity bomb, as well as shelving plans to develop a submarine-launched cruise missile known as the SLCM-N, considered a “tactical” nuclear weapon, in order to pivot resources and attention to other programs.

But Congress said no. The defense bill pumps another $25 million into SLCM-N research and forbids the executive branch from using funds to decommission more than 25 percent of the B83-1 bombs in the U.S. arsenal, until after the Pentagon completes a study on the weapons at its disposal capable of striking hardened underground targets.