House and Senate negotiators have agreed on a $700 billion defense bill for fiscal 2018, devoting significantly more resources to Pentagon and military operations than President Trump had requested for the coming year.
Republican leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, disappointed that Trump did not ask Congress for a more dramatic increase in military spending when he took office, secured significant bipartisan support for versions of the defense bill that increased Pentagon spending to unprecedented levels during floor votes this year. The final compromise legislation devotes $26 billion over and above what Trump had asked for and nearly doubles the president's requested troop increase, according to a summary of the legislation that committee staffers briefed reporters on Wednesday.
Democratic committee leaders are backing the compromise. But they are also warning that Congress will probably not budget enough money to cover the programs that the legislation outlines.
Lawmakers are facing a mid-December deadline to fund the federal government, which is still subject to budget controls Congress imposed on itself in 2011. Those restrict defense spending to far lower levels than what Armed Services Committee negotiators wrote into the annual defense authorization bill.
"The actual amount we spend on defense will ultimately be decided by congressional budget negotiations that have barely even begun," House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (Wash.) said Wednesday. "It is unlikely that those numbers will correspond."
As written, the defense bill takes into account late-breaking requests from the Trump administration to step up financial support for missile defense spending in light of the mounting nuclear threat from North Korea, an additional 3,500 troops in Afghanistan and repairs for naval vessels that have been involved in sometimes-fatal accidents at sea.
The bill also outlines billions of additional spending for modernizing and purchasing several other categories of military ships and planes, including 90 Joint Strike Fighters — 20 more than the president's request.
Lawmakers approved spending for nearly 10,000 more service members than what Trump envisioned in his budget request, adding 7,500 soldiers to the active-duty Army, and 500 soldiers each to the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard. The bill also adds 1,000 active-duty Marines over and above Trump's request and authorizes an across-the-board 2.4 percent pay raise for all members of the armed forces — also more than Trump had sought.
But the compromise bill avoided weighing in on several of the more dramatic measures lawmakers wanted to address, such as an effort from several congressional Democrats and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) to roll back Trump's stated ban on transgender troops serving in the military. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis launched a review of that order shortly after Trump issued it this summer; his determination of how, or whether, it can be implemented is due by Feb. 1.
The measure is also silent about authorizing the use of military force in current operations against the Islamic State and other extremist groups, despite senators' bipartisan efforts to force a debate under the bill. Discussions about an AUMF are continuing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where last month, Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified about the administration's point of view.
The bill also left out a House-backed proposal to start a "Space Corps" as a new, separate branch of the armed services — a proposal the White House had vehemently opposed. Instead, the bill reorganizes and consolidates the various offices that handle space programs under the commander of the Space Command, which is left in the Air Force.