Defense policy legislation that’s headed to President Joe Biden’s desk will earn the commander in chief’s signature, but he’s not going to like it.
The National Defense Authorization Act, which outlines military spending and policy priorities each year, will force the administration to roll back a requirement that troops get vaccinated against Covid, a provision on which Biden’s Republican detractors have already declared victory.
But the bill — which on Thursday passed a Democratic-led Congress — is also a bipartisan rebuke of Biden’s military budget and a raft of other plans. It prescribes $45 billion more for national defense spending than the administration proposed, reverses efforts to kill a new nuclear missile and scrambles Pentagon efforts to retire a number of ships and aircraft to save money.
A U.S. official told POLITICO that the $858 billion defense bill is “clearly” being seen as a swipe at the administration.
“There are too many targeted provisions in the legislation that it cannot possibly not be — and the left appears to have taken them without a fight, in order to just get it passed, and to fund the important work of the Defense Department,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Congress must still enact separate legislation to fund the Pentagon.
But Biden won’t hazard a veto of the measure, which would jeopardize a 61-year streak of defense policy legislation becoming law each year.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that Biden will sign the bill “later this week,” noting that each NDAA “has some provisions we support and some we do not.”
For many on Capitol Hill, the amount of ink spilled to counter Biden’s plans is just another chapter of Congress exercising its prerogatives. Outgoing House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) argued that, while the administration may not be pleased with where the bill landed on vaccines and other issues, « every bill has something in it the administration doesn’t like. »
« They don’t like it, but nobody gets everything they want in this life,” Smith said. “So I think we reached a very reasonable set of compromises and produced a very good product. »
Here are some of the big changes Congress spearheaded in the just-passed defense bill:
Repealing the vaccine mandate
By signing the bill, Biden will be forced to agree to a repeal of the Pentagon’s policy requiring troops to receive the Covid vaccine or face expulsion from the military.
The repeal is a victory for Republicans who pushed to do away with the policy during negotiations on a final defense bill. Conservatives have hammered the administration for forcing out thousands of military personnel and piling onto an already rough recruiting environment.
Rescinding the August 2021 mandate is a black eye for Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who still back the policy as a matter of health and readiness for the armed forces.
« [Biden] still believes that repealing the mandate is a mistake, » White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters recently. He added that locking down a defense bill and funding for the military « is obviously of prime importance. »
But Democrats who hold majorities in the House and Senate ultimately agreed to the provision, with some lawmakers conceding it’s appropriate to revisit the policy.
The bill, however, doesn’t prohibit a new vaccine requirement in the coming months, meaning Austin could implement a new policy when the 2021 directive is repealed. Doing so, however, would spark a battle with the Republican-controlled House next year.
Democrats also rejected a GOP push to reinstate troops who didn’t get the shot, a proposal that could be a fault line in next year’s deliberations.
Supersizing the Pentagon budget
Both parties roundly rejected Biden’s $813 billion military spending plan as too low to meet worldwide threats and counter the impacts of inflation on the Pentagon.
Instead, Congress endorsed that hefty $45 billion increase to Biden’s budget, which already would have boosted defense by about $30 billion over last year’s level. The final bill amounts to an increase of roughly $75 billion, or nearly 10 percent, from the previous year.
The additional money went toward buying more weapons as well as efforts to blunt the effects of inflation on Pentagon programs, troops and construction.
This marks the second straight year that Congress has significantly rewritten Biden’s budget. Defense legislation approved last year authorized an increase of $25 billion to the administration’s first proposal. It’s a pattern Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), who is set to chair House Armed Services next year, chalked up to Congress and the White House rarely seeing eye to eye on federal spending.
« I’ve been doing this 20 years,” Rogers said. “Every year we get a budget proposal from the president — doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat or Republican — and we put it in a drawer and say, ‘Thank you.’ And then we write the budget.”
“I’ve never had a president’s budget, that I’ve seen, that came close to meeting the needs of the department,” he said.
The legislation only authorizes funding, however, and must be followed by an appropriations measure to make the increase a reality. Congress is set to clear a full-year funding package this week that adheres to the increase in the NDAA.
Nuclear weapons plans
Congress foiled one of the few major changes Biden proposed to the nuclear arsenal, keeping alive a sea-launched cruise missile first proposed by the Trump administration.
Proponents of canceling the developmental program criticized it as costly, destabilizing and redundant, because Biden kept low-yield nukes fielded by the Trump administration deployed aboard ballistic missile submarines. A 2021 report by the Congressional Budget Office estimated the missile will cost $10 billion through 2030.
But lawmakers ultimately authorized $45 million to continue the program after top military brass, including Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley, publicly expressed support for the weapon, in a split with Austin and other top civilians who argued the missile isn’t needed.
Biden, a longtime proponent of reining in nuclear weapons’ role in foreign policy, has largely stayed the course on nuclear policy halfway through his term, endorsing the wholesale overhaul of all three legs of the U.S. arsenal.
Lawmakers also voted to require the Pentagon to keep most of its inventory of B83 nuclear gravity bombs, which Biden proposed retiring. The agreement prohibits retiring or deactivating more than 25 percent of the stockpile until the Pentagon provides Congress with a study on how it will field capabilities to strike hard and buried targets.
More ships and planes
Navy shipbuilding efforts are on track to expand once again amid bipartisan criticism that the service’s budgets don’t match plans to grow the fleet. Lawmakers authorized $32.6 billion to buy new ships, boosting the budget by $4.7 billion and ordering up three new hulls the Navy didn’t ask for.
The additions include a third unrequested Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, which the White House said it “strongly opposes” when the House approved it. Navy leaders have questioned whether a strained shipbuilding base can handle a rate of three destroyers per year. The bill also set a legal floor of 31 amphibious warships for the Navy, which the administration also opposes, arguing it would “unduly constrain” military planning.
Congress also threw a wrench into Navy plans to retire two dozen ships. The move was aimed at saving money but it also drew criticism on Capitol Hill because the plans would have scrapped some troubled littoral combat ships relatively early in their service lives.
The compromise bill ultimately bars the Navy from retiring a dozen warships it had planned to decommission, including five littoral combat ships and a Ticonderoga-class cruiser.
The legislation also crimps efforts by the Pentagon to retire dozens of aircraft. It jams up the administration’s plans to retire Navy EA-18G Growler electronic warfare jets, requiring the service to maintain a fleet of at least 158 aircraft through fiscal 2027. The bill similarly blocks efforts by the Air Force to retire some F-22 fighters through fiscal 2027.
Lawmakers also limited the Air Force’s ability to reduce its fleet of E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System planes below a certain level. Those restrictions would be eased if the service submits an acquisition strategy or awards a contract for its successor, the E-7 Wedgetail.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, boosted procurement for a swath of aircraft across the military services. Most notably, Armed Services leaders approved $666 million for eight Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets the Navy didn’t seek in its budget, keeping the production line active.
Extremism in the ranks
The final bill largely eschews issues related to the Pentagon’s efforts to root out extremism, but the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report accompanying its version of the bill calls for those plans to be curtailed, though the language is nonbinding.
The report language was added by Republicans with the backing of Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). It argues that the low instances of extremism in the ranks « does not warrant a Department-wide effort. » It further argues that the Pentagon anti-extremism effort « is an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds, and should be discontinued by the Department of Defense immediately. »
The measures preview a coming battle between Republicans and the Biden administration over a slew of personnel policies they contend are a distraction from the military’s warfighting mission and will likely be put under a microscope when the GOP controls the House next year.
Lara Seligman contributed to this report.