The U.S. Capitol is seen Thursday, July 13, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Capitol is seen Thursday, July 13, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday passed annual defense policy legislation boosting pay for troops and protecting U.S. membership in NATO, eschewing many of the culture war issues that the House had packed into its version of the bill.

Senators provided bipartisan support for the measure in a 86-11 vote, contrasting sharply with a polarized vote in the Republican-led House this month that saw a National Defense Authorization Act loaded with conservative priorities pass over near total Democratic opposition.

“It's a stark contrast from the partisan race to the bottom we saw in the House,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “House Republicans should look to the bipartisan Senate to see how we get things done. We are passing important bipartisan legislation, they're throwing partisan legislation on the floor that has no chance of passing. The contrast is glaring.”

The Senate’s legislation matches the $886 billion authorized by the House for national defense programs for fiscal 2024, which begins Oct. 1, but does not include controversial amendments limiting abortion access for troops and transgender care that tanked bipartisan consensus in the lower chamber.

It also takes softer aim at the Pentagon’s diversity and inclusion efforts, which Republicans in both chambers have criticized. The Senate voted to prohibit the creation of positions or filling vacancies related to diversity, equity and inclusion until a Government Accountability Office review and cap salaries for officials who work on such issues. The House voted to eliminate all diversity offices and positions.

Senators largely stuck to uncontroversial additions to their bill, including an amendment that requires Senate approval for the U.S. to withdraw from the NATO military alliance. The provision is believed to be a precautionary measure in case former President Donald Trump returns to the White House and attempts to remove the U.S. from NATO as he threatened to do in the past.

Other amendments expand veterans access to breast cancer screenings, halt debt collector harassment of service members and require all components of Navy ships to be manufactured in the U.S. by 2033.

Proposals that would affect aid for Ukraine’s war with Russia, prevent the Pentagon from instituting another coronavirus vaccine mandate and cut the Pentagon’s budget by 10% failed to gain traction.

The bill notably provides for a 5.2% pay raise for service members and authorizes increased funding for the services’ recruiting and advertising efforts in a bid to reverse the military’s persistent enlistment shortfalls.

It also tackles the nation’s top geopolitical threats, authorizing investments in technologies and platforms to counter China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorist organizations. The bill extends the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative through fiscal 2027, a program that has been training and arming Ukrainians for nearly a decade.

Senators are also requiring the Navy to buy an amphibious ship that the service did not request but the Marine Corps had lobbied to have. The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday signed off on defense spending bill that increases investment in the Navy above the White House’s budget proposal with the goal of boosting the number of ships in the fleet.

“The president's budget request would have resulted in a fleet of 291 ships at the end of the next five years. That is smaller than today's fleet of 299 ships, far short of the chief of naval operations’ requirements for 381 ships and alarmingly smaller than the 400 ships China will have in just two years,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

The defense policy bill also prohibits the Air Force from retiring Block 20 F-22 jets, a divestment that the House approved this year but Congress blocked last year.

The Senate did not take up measures that would challenge the Defense Department’s contentious abortion access policy, despite the growing impact of a hold on military promotions by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. Tuberville said he would only allow the Senate to proceed with confirmation votes for more than 270 nominees if a policy providing troops with leave and travel reimbursement for reproductive health care services is rescinded.

The Senate’s bill requires the Pentagon to outline the details and legality of its abortion policy while the House abolishes the policy entirely.

Such differences between the two chambers will need to be reconciled before a compromise bill is sent to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature into law. Votes on final defense policy legislation, as well as the bills that fund it, are not expected until September, when the House and Senate return from summer recess.

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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