House Democrats closed ranks to pass a massive $733 billion defense policy bill on Friday, teeing up a partisan clash with Senate Republicans over military funding and contentious foreign policy issues.
The National Defense Authorization Act was approved 220 to 197, with all House Republicans opposing the bill — enough to sustain a promised veto from President Donald Trump.
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Democratic leaders had consolidated support among progressives, underscoring the final bill endorses a smaller military budget than Republicans sought, blocks military action against Iran without congressional approval, reverses Trump’s transgender troop ban, stymies his efforts to tap the defense budget to construct more walls along the U.S.-Mexico border and puts limits on nuclear weapons programs.
The legislation also includes a major shakeup of the military’s space mission, creating a new Space Corps under the Air Force.
Advocates hailed the bill as the most progressive defense legislation in years. And Friday’s vote was a much-needed win for House Democratic leaders after Speaker Nancy Pelosi enraged progressives last month by passing a compromise Senate border-aid bill favored by centrist Democrats over legislation negotiated with liberals.
“Accountability at the Pentagon matters,” House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said on House floor. “With Democrats working on this bill, this bill is better for national security because we don’t believe in sending a blank check to the Pentagon.”
“To my Democratic colleagues, I say this is a strong defense bill — as good as you’re going to get,” added House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
In the end, only eight Democrats opposed the legislation.
Still, the defense bill breaks with the bipartisan tradition of most years. Republicans, who’ve boosted military spending with Trump in the White House, slammed the measure for cutting the Pentagon’s spending request, arguing it would gut military readiness. And they argued provisions like the bill’s ban on fielding new low-yield nuclear warheads would hurt U.S. nuclear deterrence.
On the floor, Republicans contended they were squeezed out of the process and complained of not receiving votes on their policy priorities, such as the border wall and shoring up the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“The NDAA was a test for this new majority,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said. “It was a test of whether they could put their radicalism aside and work across the aisle to do what was right for the country.”
“The Democrats, or should I say, many call themselves Socialist Democrats, failed that test,” he charged.
Democrats, in turn, accused Republicans of jumping ship on the must-pass bill long before it reached the House floor.
“You can oppose it. That’s fine,” Smith said. “But to say that we don’t care about national security, that we are a bunch of socialists who don’t want to work with Republicans is a bald-faced lie.”
In the face of GOP opposition, House leaders angled to win over progressives, granting them votes on limiting Trump’s ability to make war with Iran, overturning the administration’s transgender troop ban, cutting defense spending and curtailing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and support for its military intervention in Yemen’s bloody civil war.
After weeks of wrangling, the House on Friday adopted, 251 to 170, an amendment by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to limit Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran unless Congress authorizes military action.
The Iran proposal proved to be one of the marquee debates on the defense bill, coming just weeks after Trump aborted military strikes in retaliation for Iran shooting down a Navy surveillance drone.
Democrats — and even some Republicans — contend Congress should insist on voting on military action. Defense hawks, meanwhile, argue it takes options away from the president to respond to Iran’s destabilizing actions in the Middle East.
“Frankly, what it will prevent is what this president promised the American people not to do: to get into another endless, costly war in the Middle East,” Khanna said.
Smith also incorporated a massive benefits expansion for military personnel and federal workers. The legislation would repeal a deeply unpopular offset in military survivors benefits offered by the Defense and Veterans Affairs Departments, known as the “widow’s tax.” And it would overturn the so-called Feres Doctrine, which bars active-duty troops from suing the military for medical malpractice.
In a nod to progressives, the bill also would provide federal workers with 12 weeks of paid family leave.
Those measures, however, aren’t paid for, one of many potential sticking points in negotiations with the Senate over a final defense policy bill.
The House and Senate are on a collision course over their versions of the legislation. The Senate bill passed in June with a large bipartisan vote, endorses the higher $750 billion proposed by Trump.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a staunch conservative and Trump ally, is likely to balk at many of House Democrats’ positions, including progressive provisions on Iran, Yemen, limiting nuclear weapons and reversing restrictions on transgender troops.
Still, House and Senate defense leaders in both parties align on many core issues. The competing bills each boost purchases of ships and F-35 fighters, and greenlight the Air Force to purchase upgraded F-15EX fighters.
Both bills would mandate the military services to adopt a Tenants’ Bill of Rights in response to myriad problems with privatized military family housing investigated by Congress this year.
Both would bar Turkey, a NATO ally, from taking on the F-35 fighter in retaliation for purchasing the S-400 missile system from Russia. Turkey took its first delivery of the system on Friday.
And both bills would create a new military space service under the Air Force, a major shakeup first proposed by the House and later endorsed by Trump and the Pentagon brass.