The U.S. Capitol as seen in Washington, D.C., on July 6, 2022.

The U.S. Capitol as seen in Washington, D.C., on July 6, 2022. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

Service members would see a 5.2% pay boost and junior enlisted troops could get economy-driven bonuses in the annual defense authorization legislation approved Thursday by the House Armed Services Committee.

The committee passed the $886 billion Fiscal Year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act in a 38-1 vote just after midnight Thursday at the end of a marathon hearing to finalize the bill that sets annual policy and spending priorities for the Pentagon. The vote sent the bill to the full House for future consideration as the Senate Armed Services Committee worked behind closed doors this week to finalize its version of the must-pass legislation. Once passed in both chambers, the two bills must be reconciled before the NDAA can be sent to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature into law.

“Providing for our nation’s defense is the top priority for the House Armed Services Committee, and I am incredibly proud of the bipartisan work we’ve accomplished in the FY24 NDAA,” Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said after the committee approved the bill. “This year’s NDAA includes provisions that counter China’s aggression, boost oversight of the Department of Defense, and support our service members and their families.”

The House committee’s 2024 NDAA would bump all troops pay by 5.2%, authorizes the defense secretary to provide “monthly bonus payments” to enlisted troops E-6 and lower “as economic conditions dictate,” and remove Basic Housing Allowance payments from household income calculations in an effort to grant more troops eligibility for the Basic Needs Allowance, which is meant to boost income for low-paid service members with families. The bill would also establish a Space National Guard, authorize the Air Force to retire dozens of aging A-10 and F-15 fighter aircraft, modernize U.S. nuclear weapons, and includes more than $9 billion of funding for the military’s efforts to check Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region.

Committee leaders touted the bill as overwhelmingly bipartisan, but the NDAA hearing Wednesday was at times dominated by contentious debate over culture and diversity issues, which have been a priority for Biden’s administration. Republican lawmakers added several measures to the defense bill that aimed to counter so called “wokeism” in the military and others to protect service members who were booted from the military for refusing the coronavirus vaccine.

Republicans successfully added amendments to the bill that would eliminate the Pentagon's top diversity, equity and inclusion officer position, prohibit federal funds for teaching or training associated with Critical Race Theory and require Pentagon reports on money spent on Critical Race Theory, and how policies on transgender service members have impacted the military.

But other Republican proposed efforts to strip all funding for diversity, equity and inclusion training within the Defense Department and eliminate the position of deputy inspector general for diversity and inclusion and extremism in the military failed.

Democrats and Republicans on the committee spent hours debating the merits of diversity training in the military, with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., at one point said he would "spend as many hours as it takes to de-woke-ify this military.”

“We're going to be going after [diversity, equity and inclusion efforts] and we're going to be going after Critical Race Theory, and I think that's what our military deserves and it's not divisive for us to do that,” said Gaetz who authored several amendments aimed at culture issues. “What was divisive was [for Democrats to] use prior National Defense Authorization Acts to establish these programs … We have to go in and remediate the bad things that have happened as a consequence of this embrace of radical gender ideology and radical race ideology.”

Democrats, meanwhile, argued diversity training has improved the military and amounts to very little time for troops on annual basis.

“Having the training on diversity, equity and inclusion is actually a vital tool in bridging the gap between Americans and the military services, which actually improves recruitment,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev. “However, my Republican colleagues continue to argue against the so-called 'wokeism' in the military. Maybe it's time that they woke up. I agree with Secretary [Lloyd] Austin when he says we are a diverse nation, and the military should look like the nation that it defends — and it does. I truly believe that diversity makes us stronger.”

Democrats also largely opposed efforts tacked onto the bill by Republicans to allow service members discharged over their refusal to receive the coronavirus vaccine to return to the ranks without punishment. The Pentagon mandated the vaccine at the height of the pandemic, but it has since repealed the policy. Some 8,000 service members were discharged because of the mandate.

Under the bill, service members who were discharged for not taking the vaccine could be reinstated at the rank that they held when they were booted from the force, and the military would not be allowed to use the discharge or their break in service against them when considering them for promotions. It would require the Pentagon to reach out to those kicked out of the service to let them know they can return. It would block the federal government from seeking tuition reimbursement from service academy students who were not commissioned for refusing the vaccine, and it would mandate the Pentagon to determine how much money it would cost to provide discharged service members back pay for time they were out of uniform and a $15,000 bonus.

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., who authored some of the amendments, argued the policies would help at a time when recruiting is difficult for the military.

“This provides a fair, equitable and honorable option for our wrongly separated service members, many who filed legitimate religious exemptions and were ignored, to return to their ranks without any detriments to their career progression, especially in a time of great need as we face the greatest recruiting crisis,” he said.

The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, however pushed back on the efforts, noting those who were kicked out were booted for refusing to follow a lawful order. The Pentagon has already accepted back some of the troops who were discharged, Smith said, arguing Congress did not need to interfere with those efforts.

“The Department of Defense is determining what the best way is to handle this, and I don't think it's our place to intervene,” he said. “Because … this all comes back to the fact that a lawful order was given and organized, and it was ignored, and the DOD decided what the consequences should be. I think those consequences have been reasonable, and they are letting some people back in now.”

Despite Smith’s and other Democrats objections to the Republican amendments, almost all the Democrats supported the finalized bill Thursday morning. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., was the committee’s only member to vote against the measure.

Smith labeled the NDAA as a whole “an excellent product.”

“We disagree, we have arguments, but the goal here is to get the job done, and we always do,” Smith said just before the final vote. “You don’t see the stuff that we all agree on [in the hearing] because, we don’t have to argue about it.”

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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