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House passes annual defense bill, avoiding big policy clashes with Trump

The House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed the final version of the annual defense authorization bill, giving its approval to a record-setting military budget and changes to policies on Russia and China that nonetheless avoids direct clashes with the Trump administration.

The 359-to-54 vote on the $716 billion measure, which the Senate is expected to take up late next week, comes after one of the shortest negotiation processes for the behemoth defense bill in recent history — an indicator of how few politically controversial issues arose during the debate.

House and Senate lawmakers decided to avoid angering the Trump administration with a provision that would have effectively undone a deal the president recently struck to lift certain penalties againstChinese telecom giant ZTE, imposed because the firm sold products to Iran and North Korea.

Instead of reimposing sanctions on the company — a move that officials say would have put it out of business — lawmakers included a less heavy-handed restriction preventing the federal government from buying any products made by ZTE and Huawei, another Chinese telecom company that both Democrats and Republicans believe poses a national security risk.

Lawmakers also accommodated a request from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to give the administration the power to waive certain Russia-related sanctions to sell defense materials to countries that have been dependent on Russian systems, in an effort to better court those countries into closer defense alliances with the West.

Congress to ease Russia sanctions amid clamor for tougher measures

Republicans in Congress argued that the change was necessary to better achieve the objectives of isolating Russia. But the timing prompted a sharp backlash from Democrats, who questioned why sanctions against Russia were being eased at all at a time when members from both sides of the aisle were clamoring for more stringent punitive measures against the Kremlin.

Bipartisan pairs of lawmakers have raised various proposals to stiffen sanctions against Russia following President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, which drew criticism from members of Congress. On Wednesday, both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee laid into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for not being more forthcoming with the details of what exactly Trump agreed to during his meeting with Putin — or to allay their concerns that the White House was simply “making it up as they go” on foreign policy.

House Democratic leaders defended the changes to Russia and China policy in the bill as significant.

“This bill does step up to confront our adversaries in Russia and China,” Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said on the floor Thursday.

Among those measures are updated authorities for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, that some lawmakers have argued will be vital for blocking transactions with companies, including Chinese corporations, that pose national security risks to the country. The bill also includes a prohibition on China’s participation in joint naval exercises in the Pacific rim.

Lawmakers also decided to include in the legislation a reaffirmation of the United States’ commitment to NATO and increasing the defense capabilities of European allies. The measure creates a new position on the National Security Council dedicated to countering Russian efforts to influence elections.

The measure includes money for 77 new Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, 13 new battle ships, and a 2.6 percent pay raise for all members of the armed forces. It limits the sale or transfer of F-35s to Turkey, until a report is completed assessing whether Turkey should be eliminated from participation in the F-35 program entirely.

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