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Senate overwhelmingly passes NDAA

July 27, 2023

Briana Reilly


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By Briana Reilly, CQ / July 27, 2023 – 9:13 p.m.

The fiscal 2024 defense policy bill sailed through the Senate late Thursday with wide bipartisan support after lawmakers adopted a series of largely noncontroversial amendments to fight corruption abroad, compensate those exposed to radiation and authorize intelligence programs. 

The 86-11 vote marked a stark contrast to the House’s near party-line passage of its own National Defense Authorization Act (HR 2670) earlier this month, when the inclusion of partisan amendments on hot-button social issues turned all but four Democrats against the legislation.

Voting against the bill (S 2226) were Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Mike Braun, R-Ind., Mike Lee, R-Utah, Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Rand Paul, R-Ky., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. 

The Senate’s action on the record-sized $886.3 billion package tees up bicameral negotiations over what will become the compromise version of the bill. But with both chambers at odds over the competing priorities in their respective bills, it’s unclear how the future conference committee will be able to reconcile those differences and ultimately produce an NDAA that can win support from both the House and Senate. 

Instead of acknowledging the challenges ahead, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., on the floor Thursday touted the bipartisan work behind the Senate-passed defense authorization bill (S 2226) and said he hopes the associated process will serve as a model for the House. 

“House Republicans should look to the bipartisan Senate to see how to get things done,” he said. “We are passing bipartisan legislation; they’re throwing partisan legislation on the floor that has no chance of passing.” 

The last day of NDAA votes in the Senate concluded a two-week period of consideration in the lead-up to the August recess that saw more than 1,000 amendments filed to the bill. In all, 121 amendments were adopted, according to a news release from the Armed Services Committee. 

Ahead of final passage, senators adopted an additional manager’s package that featured 48 amendments total — 23 from Democrats, 23 from Republicans and two that were bipartisan. And they adopted a number of additional amendments seeking to onshore nuclear energy production, boost oversight of Chinese military donations to U.S. higher education institutions and require the Defense Department to pass a clean audit by Oct. 1, 2027.  

But they also defeated standalone attempts to cut the level of defense spending that would be authorized by the NDAA and limit which flags are allowed to be flown at military installations and other sites. 

Other approved amendments would elevate efforts to combat international corruption, extend the timeline for those who were exposed to radiation to file claims and authorize various intelligence-related activities for the U.S. government next fiscal year.

The route to final passage Thursday slowed in the late afternoon and early evening hours as leaders worked to reach what Schumer called “a final agreement” that would clear the way for the remaining amendment votes. That led to a brief pause in defense authorization proceedings punctuated by the chamber’s unanimous consent agreement to a resolution honoring the late singer Tony Bennett (S Res 322), who died last week.  

But ultimately, members were able to proceed to final passage just before 8 p.m., allowing the Senate — as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the floor — to do its part to keep on track the bill that has passed annually for 62 consecutive years. 

“We kept our record,” McConnell said. “This is the 63rd year, and a good way to wrap up our session. This is really important for our country.” 

Another manager’s package 

Senators adopted a second slate of amendments agreed to by both parties containing provisions related to critical minerals, artificial intelligence and even cryptocurrency.

Those amendments, housed within the second manager’s package, come after the Senate last week had agreed to include an initial block of 51 amendments within the defense authorization bill — measures that were officially adopted by the chamber upon the NDAA’s passage Thursday.  

The latest round includes a provision that would require the Defense secretary to review the Pentagon’s existing investments into artificial intelligence applications and group them into at least six categories including automation, robotics and machine learning. DOD would then need to issue a report to Congress on its findings. 

Meanwhile, another measure would codify the authority tied to a recently stood-up Pentagon AI office to access and control all of the data maintained by other DOD components. Both AI amendments were adopted following the Senate’s third and final AI briefing earlier this week as lawmakers weigh legislation to regulate the technology. 

Another amendment — well outside the realm of defense — aims to assess anti-money laundering standards for crypto firms. 

Senators also adopted Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch’s so-called Western Hemisphere Partnership Act (S 1325) as part of the package. It would direct the State Department to work with other partners to “enhance the institutional capacity and technical capabilities of defense and security institutions” through the provision of weapons and other equipment in certain Latin American and Caribbean nations, excluding Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

On the critical minerals front, one amendment would require the State Department to lead development of a global framework to end human rights abuses in the mining and sourcing of those materials. And another underscored the Senate’s stance that the U.S. should reduce its reliance on China for critical minerals through bolstering domestic development, production and refining capabilities. 

Pentagon budget cut defeated 

An amendment championed by Sanders that sought to cut authorized spending for most defense programs by 10 percent was not adopted on a lopsided 11-88 vote. 

The language, which would have exempted military personnel, the Defense Health Program and Ukraine aid accounts from the decrease, won the backing of Sanders, nine Democrats and one Republican: Paul, of Kentucky. 

But it was rejected amid near-unified opposition from members of the Armed Services Committee, including Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., who noted the pitched cut “makes no distinction between those programs that are actually vital and necessary to defend the country” and those that may be worthy of a reduction post-program evaluation. 

“This world is more dangerous perhaps today than any time and to simply walk away from adequately funding our Defense Department would be, I think, an error,” he said, pointing to the ongoing war in Ukraine and threats from China. 

Sanders, however, argued that instead of pouring “hundreds of billions of dollars into the military industrial complex,” that money would be better spent domestically to address what he called “crises” ranging from housing and childcare to climate change 

“National security is not just about nuclear weapons, submarines and fighter planes,” he added. “It’s about making sure that all Americans have decent health care, education, housing and other necessities of life.” 

Flags draw focus

Another amendment that would dictate the types of flags that can be flown at military installations, embassies and other public buildings did not to reach the 60-vote threshold needed for adoption. 

The amendment, from Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., was rejected on a 50-49 vote as Democrats protested what they called the “discriminatory” nature of the provision.

“Let’s be clear that this is about not being able to fly the pride flag,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. 

The House during consideration of its version of the NDAA earlier this month adopted a similar amendment from Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., to limit the types of flags that DOD is allowed to display. 

Marshall said Thursday his amendment sought to ensure that on “buildings and grounds owned by we the people, that only one flag, with reasonable exceptions” be flown: the American flag. 

“A vote against this amendment is a slap in the face of those of us who have served and disrespectful to the families whose loved ones have died defending this one flag,” he continued. 

Marshall’s amendment includes carve-outs for state flags, military branch flags and others.