Senate to begin defense policy debate with Biden on the sidelines

Senators supporting a bigger Pentagon budget have the votes to overrule the president

A KC-10 tanker refuels an E/A-6B Prowler over the Persian Gulf in 1999. (U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
A KC-10 tanker refuels an E/A-6B Prowler over the Persian Gulf in 1999. (U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
Posted November 15, 2021 at 4:41pm

When the Senate takes up its massive, $777.9 billion version of the annual Pentagon policy bill this week, lawmakers will have plenty of hot-button issues to debate, from how to best review the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan to whether to require women to register for the draft.    

Given the need to secure 60 votes, many senators will have influence over the final product. Less influential will be the person who has to sign it into law: President Joe Biden, whose leverage is limited given what’s likely to be a broad, bipartisan vote.    

While Biden took issue with a number of provisions in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act passed in September, he’s shown no sign he’s willing to put at risk Washington’s 60-year run of enacting a defense authorization law by issuing a veto threat. Even if he did, lawmakers could override him.  

Representatives and senators on the Armed Services committees have ignored Biden’s proposal to spend $752.9 billion on defense in fiscal 2022, boosting that total by $25 billion in both the House and Senate versions of the authorization bill. (Ultimately, appropriators will decide how much to spend, but they usually take their cues from the NDAA.)    

Biden also weighed in with a number of specific objections to the House-passed bill. He said he “strongly opposes” provisions to keep funding Ticonderoga-class cruisers and to retain more KC-10 refueling tanker planes than the Defense Department wants, for instance.

He objected to sections that would overhaul how the military handles extremism in the ranks, sexual assault cases and even standard administrative separations of servicemembers charged with offenses against others. (The House-passed bill included a provision that would allow servicemembers facing an administrative separation board to request at least one board member be of their gender, race or ethnicity.)    

Biden also opposed limits on procurement of products made with so-called forever chemicals that the House passed.    

And while Biden has yet to detail his positions on the Senate bill, it’s probable that his views will be similarly ignored. The fact that passage in the Senate, as it was in the House, will likely be overwhelming and bipartisan limits Biden’s options.    

Biden’s relative silence on the NDAA, apart from his statement of administration policy, is a departure from last year’s proceedings, when a veto threat from President Donald Trump hung over the process.     

Trump repeatedly vowed to veto the measure over its mandate to change the names of military bases that honor Confederate figures and its lack of a provision to repeal legal protections for social media companies.

But when Trump did veto the fiscal 2021 defense bill, both chambers easily overrode him.   

Hundreds of amendments

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer plans to bring this year's defense bill to the floor for debate as soon as Tuesday.

Schumer told senators in a Nov. 14 letter that he wants to attach a bill to increase U.S. technology and high-tech manufacturing competitiveness with China to the NDAA. That bill, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, would authorize $110 billion for basic and advanced technology research over five years and fund American semiconductor production.    

The China competition bill passed the Senate in June, 68-32, but stalled in the House. Attaching it would allow Schumer to press for its enactment in a House-Senate conference to reconcile the chambers’ versions of the defense authorization bill.    

Schumer’s scheduling announcement should put to rest grumbling from the Armed Services committees. This month, House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said he was “very distressed” that Schumer had not yet brought the NDAA to the floor.    

In doing so, Smith joined a chorus of Senate Republicans, including Armed Services ranking member James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, in decrying Schumer’s delay and a lack of information from the majority leader’s office.     

Schumer, of course, is juggling myriad priorities, including fiscal 2022 appropriations bills, legislation to increase the debt ceiling, and Biden’s proposed social safety net and climate change measure.    

Once the Senate begins consideration of the defense bill, it typically moves swiftly. In previous years, the chamber has considered upward of 100 floor amendments. Senators adopt the noncontroversial ones in large blocs.     

While it is not yet known which amendments will receive roll call votes this year, senators have submitted nearly 700.    

Because lawmakers consider the NDAA a must-pass bill, they use it as a vehicle to address issues far afield of national security. One GOP amendment, for example, would bar Biden from making payments to immigrant families separated by the Trump administration.

Hot-button debates

Beyond the vote on final passage, the most consequential tallies will show where the Senate stands on controversial defense policy issues.     

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.    

The issue could become a proxy for assigning blame for two decades of failures in Afghanistan.

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

Other members are taking aim at Biden’s pledge to limit how the U.S. might use its nuclear arsenal. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and 16 Republican co-sponsors want to stop the Defense Department from using any money appropriated by Congress to reduce the country’s nuclear forces.    

Debates that have grown heated in the Armed Services committees over how to handle extremists in the ranks, the teaching of critical race theory at service academies and a provision in both chambers’ versions of the bill to require women to register for the draft are probably going to resurface as well.    

Still, it’s almost certain that senators will come together for the 61st straight year, after which they’ll seek terms with the House, pass the bill again and send it to Biden for his signature.