Including women in the draft, boosting defense spending, and rewriting a president’s powers to fight future wars are among key ideological flashpoints in play as the Senate begins considering its version of the massive annual defense policy bill.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Monday gave in to growing pressure from both sides of the aisle to begin floor debate on the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with just weeks to spare in the legislative calendar. Congress has passed the bill on a bipartisan basis for six decades, making it a popular vehicle to major policy and spending changes in the Defense Department and beyond.
“You heard Republicans say repeatedly that this legislation is urgent and needs to be taken up immediately,” Mr. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Tuesday. “With their cooperation, the Senate can begin considering the bill as early as today. We Democrats are ready to do that, and I hope our Republicans can join us in moving the legislation.”
Lawmakers have piled on more than 800 amendments to the already colossal bill in recent weeks, setting the stage for a potentially lengthy process to get the measure over the finish line. The bill sets the overall budget guidelines for the Pentagon as well as delving deep into individual policy debates.
Among the flashpoints this year is an amendment to strike language already passed by the full House and the Senate Armed Services Committee that would for the first time in history require young women as well as men to register and be subject to the military draft if it is reinstated. Supporters of the change note the rising number of women already serving in the military and the fact that virtually all military assignments, including combat jobs, are being carried out by both sexes.
The measure exposed fissures in the Republican Party as the NDAA made its way through the House. Conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus called out fellow Republicans who refused to fight the change.
“I cannot believe that House Republicans are sweeping it aside, sweeping it under the rug, refusing to talk about it,” Rep. Chip Roy, Texas Republican and Freedom Caucus member said in September. “While they blindly march forward, saying that the conference supports passage of the NDAA.”
More moderate Republicans in the House said the language was not worth tanking the whole bill, which included several key wins for the conference.
Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, voted against including women in the draft during the committee mark-up and has introduced a last-ditch amendment to strike the language on the Senate floor.
“It is wrong to force our daughters, mothers, wives, and sisters to fight our wars,” Mr. Hawley said.
Five other Republicans have signed on to the measure: Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, and Roger Marshall of Kansas.
The Senate and House versions of the bill also include language to boost next year’s defense budget by $25 billion, a key win for Republicans and a setback for House progressives who fought for a lower spending total.
Two California Democrats — Rep. Barbara Lee, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Sara Jacobs, who also sits on the appropriations panel — proposed an amendment to delete the $25 billion increase, but were voted down by a 286-to-142 vote.
The House also decisively nixed a separate measure to impose a further 10% haircut to Mr. Biden’s proposal, which was offered by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat. That vote was 332-86.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, has introduced similar measures in the Senate to block the $25 billion plus-up and further reduce the Pentagon budget below President Biden’s proposal.
Mr. Schumer has also committed to tacking on to the Senate version of a measure a provision to repeal the 1991 and 2002 presidential authorizations to use force for the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Critics has long said presidents of both parties have used the authorizations to launch military action far beyond what the original measures called for.
Over the summer, Mr. Schumer promised a vote on the Senate floor before the end of the year on the authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs) and said Tuesday that the NDAA provided an appropriate vehicle to do so.
“After the fall of Saddam Hussein, presidents have continued to stretch the use of the 2002 AUMF for purposes wildly beyond what any member who voted for that resolution [had ever] intended,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said Tuesday.
Although lawmakers in both parties largely agree that the authorizations are outdated, some Republicans argue that the repeal without a clear replacement could send the wrong message to Iran and other U.S. adversaries.
“If we repeal the Iraq authorizations, we need to put something back on the table that is modern, that’s tailored, and that’s limited so we can message clearly to our allies in the Middle East, as well as to our adversaries like Iran, that the United States remains resolved to protect our nation’s interests,” Sen. Bill Hagerty, Tennessee Republican, said in August.
The repeal of the AUMFs would be the first rollback of presidential war powers since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Among the hundreds of other amendments and provisions in play in the NDAA debate are several measures to signal stronger U.S. support for Taiwan in the face of pressure for China; the composition of an independent commission to investigate U.S. policy failures in Afghanistan; new sanctions on companies that work with Germany’s Nord Stream II pipeline project with Russia; and an amendment being pushed by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, and others that would transfer control of the D.C. National Guard from the president to the mayor of the District of Columbia.
The Senate could begin voting on amendments as early as Wednesday.