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Senate Passes Bipartisan Defense Bill, Setting Up a Clash With the House

The Senate on Thursday gave overwhelming approval to the annual defense policy bill, sidestepping a contentious debate over abortion access for service members and quashing efforts to limit aid for Ukraine in a show of bipartisanship that set up a bitter showdown with the House.

The vote was 86 to 11 to pass the bill, which would authorize $886 billion for national defense over the next year. It includes a 5.2 percent pay raise for troops and civilian employees, investments in hypersonic missile and drone technology, and measures to improve competition with China.

But its fate is deeply in doubt as the measure heads for what is expected to be a contentious negotiation between the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-led House, where right-wing hard-liners have attached a raft of conservative social policy mandates.

Republicans in the Senate decided not to pick such fights in that chamber, shelving amendments to restrict abortion access and transgender health care services for military personnel. The result is vastly different bills that could make it difficult for the House and Senate to hash out a bipartisan final agreement, something that has not eluded Congress in more than six decades.

“What’s happening in the Senate is a stark contrast to the partisan race to the bottom we saw in the House, where House Republicans are pushing partisan legislation that has zero chance of passing,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said on the floor Thursday. “We are passing important bipartisan legislation; they are throwing on the floor partisan legislation that has no chance of passing.”

House Republican leaders capitulated to pressure from right-wing lawmakers to load up the legislation with partisan provisions, prompting all but four Democrats to oppose it. That measure would shutter the Pentagon’s diversity training offices, end military health coverage for gender transition treatments, and block the Pentagon from offering time off and travel reimbursement to service members needing to travel out of state to obtain an abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade.

Democrats have made clear that they would never support those measures. On Thursday, party leaders in the Senate predicted they would be able to protect the Pentagon’s abortion access policy during negotiations with the House.

“We’re going into conference with the position that the Senate basically has concluded that the policy of the Department of Defense is both legal and one that should be retained,” said Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “We’re going to stick to that position, and I think we will prevail.”

The Senate’s bill is silent on the matter of abortion and transgender services. But it nods to Republicans’ frequent complaints that the Pentagon has been overtaken by liberal policies run amok; it would bar the Pentagon from requiring that people list their preferred pronouns on official correspondence, and impose salary caps and a hiring freeze on positions dedicated solely to promoting equity and inclusion.

The Biden administration warned in a statement about the Senate bill on Thursday that those provisions would undermine efforts promote a diverse work force. The White House has said that President Biden would veto the House bill.

The chief Republican objection to the Senate measure was that it was not large enough.

“Ideally we would have an annual 3 to 5 percent boost above inflation to our top line,” Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said on the floor Thursday night. “Even without that budget increase our committee has advanced a strong bipartisan product that contains numerous, important provisions.”

Mr. Wicker blocked an effort to include language approving the transfer of nuclear submarines to Australia, in a bid to pressure the Biden administration to put more money toward submarine production in the United States. The bill facilitates other parts of a security pact between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, which the Pentagon sees as key to checking Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.

His complaint was echoed by Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader.

“President Biden’s defense request grossly underestimates what’s required to meet the challenges his own national defense strategy identifies,” Mr. McConnell said on Thursday. “If we’re serious about deterring conflict in the Indo-Pacific, we must address America’s aging attack submarine fleet.”

Republicans lost a bid to create a special inspector general to scrutinize American aid to Ukraine, which the House bill would do. The Senate last week shot down a proposal from Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, to limit military assistance to Ukraine, by vote of 71 to 13.

The Senate also rejected a proposal by Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, to reinstate service members who had been discharged from the military for failing to comply with the Pentagon’s coronavirus vaccine mandate and provide them back pay. That marks another point of conflict with the House bill.

Senators offered strong bipartisan endorsements of measures to increase U.S. production of low-enriched uranium and ban strategic petroleum reserve sales to China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. The Senate also voted, by a vote of 65 to 28, to stipulate that no president could withdraw from NATO without the approval of two-thirds of the Senate or an act of Congress.

The Senate also incorporated a trio of health care-related measures to the defense bill, voting by lopsided margins to approve funds to treat more Sept. 11 emergency response workers for conditions they contracted during their rescue efforts and to expand a national cancer registry for firefighters.

A measure to expand the roster of people entitled to compensation for radiation exposure also squeaked through, 61 to 32, just over the 60-vote threshold needed to be added to the bill.

Earlier in the week, overwhelming bipartisan majorities also endorsed measures to counter Beijing’s economic rise and espionage activities, voting to ban the sale of farmland to companies and nationals of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, and to require U.S. entities and individuals to disclose any investments in China’s national security industries. The bill also includes provisions to help the Biden administration prevent fentanyl trafficking into the United States and to improve the Pentagon’s development and use of artificial intelligence.

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