Defense policy amendments pour in ahead of floor action

Senators want an Afghanistan commission, Russia sanctions and chimpanzee relocation, among other things

Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed and ranking Republican Jim Inhofe hope to shepherd the defense authorization bill through the Senate this month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed and ranking Republican Jim Inhofe hope to shepherd the defense authorization bill through the Senate this month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 9, 2021 at 4:42pm

With the Senate expected to consider its version of the annual defense policy bill as soon as next week, senators have already filed hundreds of amendments. The National Defense Authorization Act is one of the few bills Congress passes without fail each year and, as a result, it's one of the only reliable vehicles for lawmakers to see their priorities into law.

Many of the amendments reflect increased anxiety over China’s military capabilities and regional ambitions and include provisions aimed at increasing the United States' ability to counter China. Several others represent an effort to preempt a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan by strengthening U.S. involvement in defense of the island nation.

But the amendments also delve into issues far afield of national security, from chimpanzee relocation to vegetable-based protein.

Congress has passed a defense authorization law for 60 straight years.

In recent years, leaders of the Armed Services Committee have restricted the number of amendments that receive votes, trying to maintain control as they shepherd the bill through a floor vote. In most cases, the best chance to get an amendment successfully attached to the NDAA is inclusion in an en bloc package.

Afghanistan commission

There are dueling amendments on how to conduct a review of America’s longest war. Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth’s proposal to establish an independent Afghanistan commission to look at the involvement of all U.S. government agencies has garnered support from 13 other senators, including Todd Young, R-Ind. Along with four GOP co-sponsors, Rick Scott, R-Fla., has introduced an amendment that would create a joint select committee on Afghanistan, composed of six members from each chamber of Congress.

While there’s nothing stopping Congress from adopting both proposals, the divergent approaches may signal partisan division. The issue could become a proxy for trying to assign blame for two decades of failures in Afghanistan.

And even after the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, relations with Kabul remain a thorny issue. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, filed an amendment that would block the U.S. from recognizing the Taliban as the rightful government in Afghanistan and designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization. That would complicate U.S. efforts to safely remove any Americans as well as thousands of Afghans remaining in Afghanistan who face retribution for having helped U.S. troops during the war and are seeking special immigrant visas.

There are also differing approaches to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, designed to enable the export of Russian natural gas to Germany by running under the Baltic Sea. Idaho's Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, introduced an amendment that would sanction any entity involved in the planning or completion of the pipeline. GOP Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Ted Cruz of Texas, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Tom Cotton of Arkansas are co-sponsors.

In a separate amendment, Portman, Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., want to require the State Department to update Congress on whether Russia is trying to use the energy security of U.S. allies in eastern Europe as a geopolitical weapon.

Input from other committees

Mark Warner, D-Va., the Intelligence Committee chairman, has filed the fiscal 2022 intelligence authorization bill, which the panel approved in July, as an amendment to the NDAA.

The bill would aim to strengthen spy-agency protections against cybersecurity threats, speed the security clearance process and fully investigate the so-called Havana syndrome that has afflicted hundreds of U.S. personnel overseas, among its many provisions. 

What’s more, it would revise laws helping whistleblowers who work for intelligence services — changes that were motivated largely by problems demonstrated during the first impeachment of Donald Trump. 

The intelligence measure would enable the spy-agency whistleblowers to more easily communicate concerns straight to Congress. It would make disclosure of the identity of an anonymous whistleblower a crime. It would empower anyone whose name was revealed against his or her will to fight back in court. And it would make clear that no administration official can kill a complaint by simply keeping it from reaching Capitol Hill.

Also a contender for Senate consideration is an amendment by Risch that would bolster U.S. support for Ukraine, which faces a buildup of Russian troops on its border. The amendment would authorize $500 million a year from fiscal 2022 through fiscal 2026 in the form of foreign military financing so Ukraine can buy U.S.-made weapons. The amendment would also authorize State Department funds for training Ukrainian troops, for helping improve Kyiv’s cyber defenses and more. 

Another amendment by Risch would require the Biden administration provide Congress with documents pertaining to consultations with allies about the direction of America's developing Nuclear Posture Review. Two senior House Republicans, Mike D. Rogers of Alabama and Michael McCaul of Texas wrote the Pentagon and State Department on Monday asking for records about the communications with allies on that subject. 

Opposition to administration policies

Many amendments are critiques of Biden administration policies.

Some members oppose vaccination mandates, both for members of the military and for the federal contractors working for the Defense Department, arguing they pose a risk to national security because key individuals might resign rather than comply.

Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan, a member of the Armed Services Committee, has introduced an amendment that would bar any Defense Department contract from including a vaccine mandate. James Lankford, R-Okla., submitted an amendment that would block the Pentagon from enforcing its mandate for servicemembers until any exemption requests filed before Dec. 1, 2022, are resolved.

John Hoeven, R-N.D., plus 16 Republican co-sponsors want to stop the Defense Department from using any money appropriated by Congress to reduce the country’s nuclear forces.

Specific fixes

Other proposals seek fixes to very specific issues. Along with Louisiana Republicans Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, Duckworth filed an amendment that would require the Air Force to relocate any chimpanzees on military bases to Chimp Haven, a sanctuary in Louisiana, by the end of May.

Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut want the Navy to implement a three-year pilot program for plant-based protein options at two forward operating bases where meat is hard to come by, then report back to Congress.

And an amendment by Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen would make Washington, D.C.'s mayor, not the president, the leader of the D.C. National Guard. In 2020, during protests of the police killing of George Floyd, D.C. officials were concerned about their lack of control over the security forces helping law enforcement in the city.

John M. Donnelly and Mark Satter contributed to this story.