The U.S. Capitol is seen through a Cannon House Office Building window on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

The U.S. Capitol is seen through a Cannon House Office Building window on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday passed a defense bill that authorizes a record $886 billion in military spending and avoids controversial culture war issues that threatened to derail the legislation.

Lawmakers in the Republican-led chamber voted 310-118 to approve the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act. A coalition of Republicans and Democrats came together to pass the legislation, unlike an earlier vote this year when Republicans overcame near unanimous Democratic opposition to push through a version of the bill catering to far-right conservatives.

The final legislation, negotiated with the Democrat-led Senate, dropped the most divisive provisions, including proposals to block the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy, ban coverage of medical treatment for transgender troops and gut programs that promote diversity and inclusion.

It now goes to President Joe Biden to be signed into law.

“I’ll be the first to admit, I’m disappointed we didn’t get all the priorities we wanted but you know what, the Senate is pretty disappointed they didn’t get the priorities they wanted either,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “It takes compromise to move legislation in a divided government and this bill is a good compromise. It’s laser-focused on deterring our adversaries, especially China.”

Congress still needs to pass an appropriations bill that would allocate the funding necessary to implement the policies outlined in the NDAA.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., last week called the compromise bill “a total sell-out of conservative principles and a huge win for Democrats.” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, urged lawmakers who are “pro-life, against racial division, against taxpayer transgender surgeries, against drag shows” to oppose “this swamp bill.”

Other lawmakers said they could not vote for the legislation because it included a four-month extension of a controversial foreign surveillance program. But the bill easily earned the two-thirds majority needed to pass.

Lawmakers from both parties lauded various quality-of-life improvements included in the legislation, including a 5.2% pay raise for troops — the largest in more than 20 years.

Other provisions expand eligibility for Basic Needs Allowance programs, fund improvements to barracks and housing facilities, and allow military services to give financially struggling junior service members monthly bonuses.

“Nothing is more important to the national security of this country than the people who we ask to defend it,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Armed Services committee. “This bill protects them.”

The Senate approved the defense bill on Wednesday night in a bipartisan vote, 87-13. The legislation, which sets annual policy for the Pentagon, typically enjoys wide bipartisan support but its fate appeared uncertain this year due to the House’s polarizing amendments.

Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee in recent days sought to champion the conservative measures that remained, saying the final legislation “pushes back against the radical woke ideology being forced on our servicemen and women and restores the focus of our military on lethality.”

They touted provisions that prohibit funding for the teaching of critical race theory and establish a hiring freeze and salary caps for the Pentagon’s diversity, equity and inclusion workforce. The bill also bans the display of unapproved flags, such as a rainbow LGBTQ pride flag, at military installations.

Additional items defund a Pentagon working group created to issue recommendations on rooting out extremism in the military and directs the defense secretary to inform service members who had been discharged solely for refusing to get the coronavirus vaccine on how they can be reinstated.

Recruiting commanders for the Army, Navy and Marine Corps told senators last week that few of the 8,000 service members booted from service sought to rejoin. About 57 soldiers are either back on active duty or awaiting their return to active duty in the Army, 14 Marines have come back to service and two Navy personnel have reenlisted, they said.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., argued the defense bill does not go far enough to address the fallout from the vaccine mandate, which was rescinded earlier this year.

“We were told over and over again that there would be back pay and reparations and restoration of rank for those people who were improperly told that they could not express their patriotism through military service because they didn’t want to take an experimental vaccine,” he said. “And yet that is totally absent in this legislation.”

Rogers pushed back, pointing out the bill contains “hundreds of provisions that are good for our service members” and a pathway for discharged troops to get back into service. Smith added the defense bill was a product of strong bipartisanship.

“You cannot oppose this bill and claim that you support the national security of this country,” he said. “Because this bill represents that bipartisan compromise that we worked for to get a good bill to meet our national security needs.”

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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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