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House defense bill rejects portions of Biden’s agenda

The $840 billion bill is both a means to fund the military and a forum for lawmakers playing to their constituents.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Surpassing what the Biden administration had requested, the House's $840 billion version of the annual defense-spending plan signals both a bipartisan commitment to the military amid Russia's war in Ukraine and a showcase for political pandering in the budgeting of national security programs.

This year's House version of the National Defense Authorization Act marks not only a more than 9% boost to the staggering size of last year's budget but goes $37 billion above President Joe Biden's request for funding, just one of several changes the House made to the president's defense plans.

"As it has been for quite a while, it's nearly half the discretionary budget of the federal government, even though we just ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan," Tricia Sullivan, professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in an interview. "It's clear that the war in Ukraine increased support for defense spending."

Ultimately, however, the House version of the bill does not have the final say on defense policy. The Senate still has to pass its own version, with lawmakers then reconciling the differences between the two in the coming months.

"This is a huge budget," Malia Du Mont, a former strategist for the secretary of defense, said in an interview. "It'll be interesting to see how the economic developments over the next couple months color the defense budget discussion.”

Several progressive Democrats as well as Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, pushed for House lawmakers to stick to the smaller budget proposal put forward by the White House.

“He wanted to cut that $37 billion, not because he necessarily thinks that we spend too much on defense, but because, in his view, larger budgets enable more inefficiencies and more bloat in the process. And he actually would have preferred the lower amounts because it forces more innovation and forces more hard choices," Katherine Kuzminski, senior fellow and director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, said in an interview. “It's interesting to see the House Armed Services Committee chairman's perspective being overturned."

Smith wasn't the only key figure whose defense perspectives were overridden by portions of the bill; several of the amendments to the House's bill and provisions of it rejected Biden's own national security plans.

The bill throws a wrench in the president's ability to sell F-16 jets to Turkey, unless he can prove the move would be critical to national security.

At the NATO summit last month, Biden backed the U.S. sending jets to Turkey, a NATO member nation run by an autocratic leader that faces accusations of violating Greece’s airspace with warplanes.

Turkey also initially vetoed Finland and Sweden joining the international alliance, before lifting the veto late last month.

"This may be some degree of payback — if not payback, at least sort of a recognition that, if a leader of a country is unreliable, that may not be the best place to be sending high-tech U.S. arms," Tung Yin, professor of law and a researcher on national security and terrorism law at Lewis & Clark College, said in an interview.

Another amendment temporarily bars the United States from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, citing the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi in 2018.

President Joe Biden participates in a working session with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Al Salman Royal Palace in Jeddah on July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

On Friday, Biden met with and fist-bumped Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, whom the CIA has accused of being involved in Kashoggi's assassination.

"Biden had had a lot of criticism for Saudi Arabia, prior to being elected ... he is also now obviously seeing Saudi Arabia as a key ally in the region, wants Saudi Arabia to cooperate with Israel and feels the need to have cooperation and good working relationships with Saudi Arabia, despite concerns about those human rights violations. So this makes that attempt to have those relations, potentially it complicates it a little bit, although this is temporary," Sullivan said. “It's not going to make the government in Saudi Arabia happy. But at the same time, it potentially gives Biden a little bit of leverage to say, ‘Clearly Congress cares about what Saudi Arabia does, with the weapons that the U.S. sells.’ And the government may need to give that some thought.”

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The legislation also authorizes five more war ships than the Navy requested, three more F-35 fighter jets than the Pentagon requested and allocates hundreds of millions of dollars for the Navy to add three F-35C carrier jets to its arsenal.

“[The F-35] has not performed very well. It's been one of the most expensive, maybe the most expensive, single weapons programs, not counting nuclear weapons, ever. And the Biden administration had proposed decreasing the number of planes, but there's a block of Congress that are big advocates of the planes, and you have to conclude that it's primarily because the planes and parts of them are produced in their states," Sullivan said.

"If the Pentagon didn't think they needed so many F-35s, and the Navy didn't think they needed those ships anymore, it is questionable why Congress did and required the funding anyway," she added.

Passing the National Defense Authorization Act is a yearly routine in Congress and the must-pass nature of the annual bill brings with it political appeals to constituents, often resulting in piles of proposed amendments that are often tangential or unrelated to the Pentagon, military or national security in general.

This year, the House saw more than 1,200 proposed amendments on everything from nixing the Covid-19 vaccine requirement for those in service to expanding abortion access for military members. Both those policies failed, but obscure amendments such as one requiring all flowers outside the White House, State Department and Department of Defense to be U.S.-grown made it into the final bill.

"A lot of this is messaging on the House side is because they know these things are never gonna make it out of the Senate. So, it's relatively safe for them to send a strong message to their constituents of, 'Look, I'm trying to support you and our local community.' And then the Senate makes the ultimate decision about it," Du Mont said.

Additional amendments could have a sizable impact on U.S. policy if they make it into the Senate version of the legislation, including a provision that repeals the authorization for military force in Iraq.

“This authorization allowed the president to wage war in Iraq," Sullivan said. "It's been such a broad authorization that it's important for Congress to take back some of the power to authorize use of military force again," Sullivan said.

Another last-minute addition would require the Department of Defense to work with an independent research center to conduct a report on U.S. practices regarding combatants and civilians during military operations.

“That, of course, has been a really significant issue in some countries,” Sullivan said. "We know that Saudi Arabia has been implicated in using U.S. weapons and planes to kill a large number of civilians in Yemen, contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. But there's other countries as well, Nigeria and Kenya, El Salvador and a number of other places where U.S. security assistance has ended up either increasing or contributing to civilian harm and to the use of force by security forces in those countries against civilians.”

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