The House passed a defense bill laden with several controversial policy changes Wednesday evening, serving up a $610 billion measure that dips into wartime funds, shrinks the National Security Council, and stymies presidential directives on climate change and protections for LGBT federal contractors.
The White House has already threatened to veto the bill, which passed 277 to 147, just 13 votes shy of a veto-proof majority. A few dozen Democrats backed the measure, while a handful of Republicans voted against the bill.
The House defense policy bill currently clashes with similar legislation that is expected to go before the full Senate next week.
Both measures are focused on authorizing funds for Defense Department programs, modernizing materiel, streamlining procurement procedures, and supporting military personnel and campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, against the Islamic State.
But the Senate’s bill differs from the House’s in several high-profile respects.
The Senate version does not echo language, for instance, to exempt religious organizations that contract with the federal government from certain provisions of civil rights law and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Senate measure also requires young women to register for the draft, a controversial proposal stripped out of the House legislation before it hit the floor.
While the Senate’s bill also takes aim at shrinking the National Security Council, it does not reduce the numbers as dramatically as the House’s legislation, which would cap the NSC at 100 staffers, or reserve for Congress a role in confirming the National Security Adviser if the NSC’s numbers exceed that threshold. There are currently approximately 400 people on the NSC, about four times the size it was at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Yet the most critical difference between the House and Senate bills may be in the way each chooses to fund the military. While the Senate follows a budget agreement struck last year, the House uses an extra $18 billion of war funding to cover both the president’s requests and House GOP priorities. That means the country will run out of money to pay for U.S. military campaigns abroad next spring, likely necessitating an emergency spending measure.
The White House and many Democrats, including Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, cited the discrepancy as a key reason for opposing the defense bill. Smith also strongly objected to the language exempting religious organizations from LGBT protections applying to federal contractors.
“We are funding a defense that we cannot sustain,” Smith said. “We start all of these programs. There is not enough money to finish those programs.”
Republicans argued there is precedent for the move in the defense policy bill passed in 2008, which established a “bridge fund” to keep war operations going through the presidential changeover, but not through the entire fiscal year. Democrats reject the comparison, as there were no budget caps in place at the time.
But House GOP leaders maintain Democrats are “just looking for some excuse to vote against the bill,” as Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) said, despite the fact that Democrats supported the bill through the committee process.
“We can all wait to support a defense bill until some far off condition were met. It’s easy to vote no,” Thornberry said. “But that does not fix the immediate problems that face the men and women who volunteer to defend our country.”
Democrats had hoped that the defense bill would also include a debate over the authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, that currently underpins the Obama administration’s fight against the Islamic State.
But House leaders allowed only one such vote, on a proposal from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) to repeal the 2001 AUMF that approved operations against al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the wake of Sept. 11. The Obama administration has used it to justify the war against the Islamic State over the objections of many lawmakers.
But Lee’s amendment only got the support of about a third of the chamber, losing some Democrats over concerns a new AUMF was not at hand. Most Republicans voted against the measure after Thornberry and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) campaigned against it.
“It’s clear many want an AUMF that limits the authority of this president and the next president,” Royce said. “This amendment would leave us with no strategy and no authority — that’s irresponsible.”