House, Senate negotiators agree to add $45B to Biden’s defense budget

Although the major bill is still in the late stages of negotiations, lawmakers are poised to deliver a second straight bipartisan rebuke to the Biden administration’s defense spending plans. The White House sought $802 billion for national defense programs in its fiscal 2023 budget.

House and Senate Armed Services leaders in both parties and their staff have been ironing out differences in their version of the defense policy bill for months to pave the way for a compromise to pass before the end of the year.

The chairs and top Republicans of the two committees have largely resolved their differences and have handed the bill off to House and Senate leadership to deal with issues outside the panels’ jurisdiction that could be attached to the legislation.

Lawmakers are aiming to have an NDAA ready for a vote in the House next week. From there it would go to the Senate and, if approved, would head to the White House for Biden’s signature.

Negotiators have been tight-lipped on how they resolved the topline. But a compromise was destined to endorse a national defense budget that is tens of billions more than Biden sought after Democrats and Republicans in both chambers backed large increases on the premise of addressing high inflation and keeping peace with China.

“With inflation factored in, it is a good increase but it’s essential because of inflation and also the need to continue significant programs,” Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (DR.I.) said in an interview, although he did not specify what amount the panels agreed upon.

If Congress moves ahead with a $45 billion increase to Biden’s budget, it would mirror the topline of the Senate Armed Services-approved defense bill. The panel voted overwhelmingly over the summer to authorize an extra $45 billion on top of the administration’s budget, for a total of $847 billion.

House Armed Services, meanwhile, approved a $37 billion increase to its version of the bill to bring the total to $839 billion.

Although the increase to the NDAA topline is a significant showing of bipartisan support for more defense spending, lawmakers still need to pass an appropriations package to fund the Pentagon for the rest of the fiscal year.

A current funding patch runs out on Dec. 16 and congressional appropriators haven’t yet reached a deal.

Anger over vaccines

Still, there will be at least some resistance to the defense bill when an agreement emerges. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy charged Democrats with focusing too much on “wokeism” over national security issues and has called for the bill to be delayed until Republicans take over in January, although that play has not gained much traction.

In the Senate, 13 Republicans are threatening to oppose advancing the bill unless they receive a vote to undo the administration’s military vaccine mandate. They want to bar DoD from kicking out troops solely because they don’t receive the shot and reinstate personnel who have been drummed out with back pay.

“While the Department of Defense certainly must make decisions that will bolster military readiness, the effects of the mandate are antithetical to [the] readiness of our force, and the policy must be revoked,” the senators argued in a letter to GOP leadership.

Those senators alone cannot block the bill’s passage, although they could delay the process as Congress aims to complete several major bills in the coming weeks.

Drone provision likely dropped

Proposed language that would block US government agencies from buying Chinese-made drones will likely not make it into the compromise version, according to three people familiar with the negotiations.

The move comes as several lawmakers are increasingly alarmed after Chinese-made drones recently flew into restricted airspace over Washington, DC, bypassing no-drone-zone rules and raising fears of possible espionage.

The policy governing the federal purchase of Chinese-made drones falls under the jurisdiction of multiple committees, meaning each panel must sign off on the provision in the NDAA.

Two weeks ago, House Intelligence Committee members requested a “carve-out” in the proposed government-wide ban on purchasing the drones, meaning intelligence agencies would still be able to buy them.

The people said Armed Services committee staff asked why certain agencies wanted the option to still use the drones, and were told the reasons are classified.

Bill negotiators subsequently requested a classified briefing from the House Intelligence Committee on the proposed carve-out, but were refused.

“Opposite [the language] without explaining why it is not a typical negotiating tactic,” one congressional aide said. “I don’t know how to judge that.”

The people familiar with the talks were granted anonymity to describe details of legislation that has not been finalized. Spokespeople for the House and Senate Armed Services committees did not respond to requests for comment.

Lauren French, spokesperson for the House Intelligence Committee, said the implication that committee members torpedoed the provision “is a lie.”

“Based on concerns shared on a bipartisan basis about unintended consequences of aspects of the proposal, the Committee proposed changes which addressed our concerns and cleared the provision’s inclusion,” French said in a statement. “We do not know the final disposition of the proposal, but if it was not included in the final version of the NDAA it was not due to HPSCI objections.

“Any suggestion that the Intelligence Committee stood in the way of this provision are spurious, and appear to be an attempt to excuse the legislative failure of the sponsors of this proposal,” she added.

Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report

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