WASHINGTON – The Republican-led House on Friday overwhelmingly backed a $611 billion defense policy bill that rejects a number of President Barack Obama’s key proposals for managing the nation’s vast military enterprise.
Lawmakers passed the legislative package, 375-34. The bill now goes to the Senate where a vote is expected early next week.
The bill, crafted after weeks of talks between House and Senate negotiators, prohibits Obama from following through on his longstanding campaign pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The bill also bars the Pentagon from reducing the number of military bases even though senior U.S. defense officials said there is excess capacity, and it awards U.S. troops their largest pay raise in six years. Obama had recommended a smaller pay increase.
The bill would prevent the Pentagon from forcing thousands of California National Guard troops to repay enlistment bonuses and benefits they received a decade after they signed up to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers would have to return a bonus only if a “preponderance of the evidence” shows they knew they weren’t eligible to receive the money.
Even at $611 billion, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee lamented that more money is needed in the defense budget to restock the U.S. arsenal worn down by 15 years of conflict. Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas said he is hopeful President-elect Donald Trump, who pledged during the campaign to spend more on the military, will ask Congress early next year to boost fiscal year 2017 military spending even further.
During his 2008 bid for president, Obama pledged to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, which he called a recruiting tool for extremist groups. But Republicans and a number of Democrats repeatedly thwarted his goal over the ensuing years, arguing the prison was badly needed for housing suspected terrorists. The ban on closing the prison also includes a prohibition on moving Guantanamo detainees to secure facilities in the U.S.
Trump has not only pledged to keep Guantanamo open, he said during the campaign that he wants to “load it up with some bad dudes.”
The defense legislation also authorizes a 2.1 percent pay raise for the troops – a half-percentage point higher than the Pentagon requested in its budget presentation. The Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said it’s the largest military pay increase since 2010.
The White House Office of Management and Budget objected to the larger raise, telling lawmakers earlier this year that the lower amount would save $336 million this fiscal year and $2.2 billion through 2021. A bigger increase, the budget office said, would upset the careful balance between competitive pay and acquiring cutting-edge equipment and training.
The bill blocks the Pentagon’s planned reductions in the number of active-duty troops by prohibiting the Army from falling below 476,000 active-duty soldiers – 16,000 more than Obama’s defense budget had proposed. The bill also adds 7,000 service members to the Air Force and Marine Corps.
House and Senate negotiators dropped a House plan to shift $18 billion from the emergency wartime spending account to pay for additional weapons and combat gear the Pentagon didn’t include in its budget request. They elected instead to boost the wartime account, which isn’t constrained by mandatory budget limits, by $3.2 billion to help halt a decline in the military’s ability to respond to global threats.
The decision may have been motivated by Trump’s assurances that he would increase defense spending dramatically, allowing the armed forces to add tens of thousands more troops and acquire new weapons.
The defense bill contains $5.8 billion in additional war-related funding Obama requested last month primarily for operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. That includes $2.5 billion to maintain elevated U.S. troop levels of 8,400 in Afghanistan as announced over the summer. About $383 million would pay for air strikes against Islamic State militants.
Lawmakers avoided wading more deeply into social policy issues by stripping two contentious provisions from the bill. One, opposed by Democrats, would have allowed federal contractors to discriminate against workers on the basis of sexual or gender orientation. Another, opposed by Republicans, would have required for the first time in U.S. history that young women sign up for a potential military draft.
The Obama administration on Thursday declared its support for requiring women to register for the military draft, a symbolic but significant shift that reflects the U.S. military’s evolution from a male-dominated force to one seeking to incorporate women at all levels.
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