Senate Set to Adopt $886.3 Billion Defense Budget


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NDAA advances despite objections to abortion travel policy and a ‘backroom deal’ denying aid to people ‘poisoned by their own government’ in building ‘The Bomb’

The Senate Dec. 12 agreed to end floor debate on the draft $886.3 billion defense budget, a standard procedural step that sets the stage for a Dec. 13 chamber adoption.

But the parliamentary maneuvering that preceded the rarely-contested cloture motion was anything but standard in advancing the military appropriations package, or National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Before approving a cloture motion to quell NDAA debate by a required 60-percent majority, senators in 60-percent votes shot down point-of-order objections to the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy and last-minute rejection of an amendment extending a federal assistance program for those exposed to radiation from the nation’s nuclear weapons programs.

Anticipated floor challenges to the NDAA’s extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s (FISA) Section 702 did not materialize during the near-four hours it took for the Senate to weed through the debate on the motion to end debate.

The two point-of-order objections were last-ditch ‘Hail Mary’s,’ essentially symbolic protests of a Senate rule that prohibits draft conference budget bills from being amended on the chamber floor.

Under this rule, the 3,093-page NDAA unveiled Dec. 6 by a defense Senate-House conference committee could not be amended and only its 718-page conference report debated.

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With the chamber’s 85-15 cloture vote, debate on that conference report is now closed and the NDAA is set for Senate adoption, as soon as Dec. 13, and transfer to the House. Defense officials urge Congress to get it to President Joe Biden’s desk by year’s end.

Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) said during floor presentations that the rule is an expedient contrivance to muzzle objections to draft budget bills crafted by chamber leaders with little rank-and-file input.

Ms. Ernst said the rule is “obstructing the world’s greatest deliberative body from debating” objections to the NDAA’s affirmation of the Department of Defense’s (DOD) abortion travel policy.

She said it is illegal for Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to install an amendment in the draft NDAA upholding the DOD’s abortion travel policy, which she said violates the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal taxpayer money being used to fund abortions.

“Congress has been clear for nearly half a century—the Hyde Amendment protects taxpayers from being forced to fund abortions, and that includes the Department of Defense,” she said.

Ms. Ernst, a combat veteran who served 23 years as an Army officer, offered a motion to strike “the Schumer amendment” from the bill and insert language explicitly forbidding “any taxpayer funding for Biden’s radical abortion tourism, including travel costs” be included in the NDAA.

“A ‘yes’ vote on this motion would allow me to offer the House-passed Pro-Life provisions, including these protections, in the defense bill to restore the DOD’s mission integrity,” she said,  calling her motion an opportunity “to all stand united in the defense of our nation” and “overturn this abhorrent policy”

Her motion fell 13 votes shy of the needed 60 ‘yes’ tallies, failing 53-47.

 Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) speaks at a Senate hearing on Nov. 1, 2023. (Senate Judiciary Committee/Screenshot via NTD)
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) speaks at a Senate hearing on Nov. 1, 2023. (Senate Judiciary Committee/Screenshot via NTD)

‘Not A Dime’ For Radiation Victims


Mr. Hawley said the Senate rule gave him no option but to file a motion to table the entire NDAA and kick it back to conference to restore an amendment that would help St. Louis suburb families deal with radioactive waste dating to the 1940s Manhattan Project.

The amendment to extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act—approved in Senate 61-37 in July—was removed from the NDAA in conference negotiations over cost concerns, he said, with Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Rep. Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) consent.

Mr. Hawley called it a travesty that the NDAA is larded with $26 billion for “programs [DOD] doesn’t even want,” including $15 billion for 636 projects inserted by senators “the Pentagon says it doesn’t need,” yet “we don’t have a dime for these people” such as those in a community in his state that has been dealing with 80 years of radioactive fallout.

His amendment, supported by Mr. Luján and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), seeks “to do justice for these good Americans who, let’s just tell it like it is, have been poisoned by their own government” and are now “left with nothing … because of a backroom deal struck in conference” will allow the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to expire.

The Hawley-Luján motion failed to garner the needed 60-percent margin, falling in a 73-26 tally.

That came as no surprise to Mr. Hawley, who noted before the vote that his Senate colleagues were “all too eager to move on” in adopting the defense budget, which is already more than two months late.

“But I think it is important we take as much time as is necessary to understand the stakes of what we are doing in turning our back on these people,” Mr. Hawley said. “It is wrong to turn our backs on tens of thousands of Americans who have given their health and, in many cases, their lives, for their country, and have not been recognized or compensated for it.”

 Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks in Washington on Dec. 20, 2022. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks in Washington on Dec. 20, 2022. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

No FISA Floor Fight


Although a bipartisan chorus of critics in both chambers have issued expansive statements and comments objecting to the NDAA’s extension of FISA’s Section 702 through mid-April 2024, those challenges did not surface on the Senate floor before the cloture vote.

FISA’s Section 702 language allows the National Security Agency to intercept broad swaths of foreign communications without individualized court orders.

While such surveillance is outlawed domestically on U.S. citizens, Americans’ private conversations are inevitably swept into national security probes into foreign communications.

Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have been among vocal critics who say Section 7 provides federal agencies a “backdoor” way to ferret through Americans’ names and email addresses in foreign targets’ intercepted communications.

They say the FISA extension should be debated separately and that Senate rules—the chamber parliamentarian is having a busy week—preclude the conference report from adding anything to a draft budget that wasn’t included in the proposed plans submitted by both chambers.

The Senate and House adopted their versions of the defense budget in July. Neither proposed NDAA addressed FISA.

The NDAA earmarks $841.5 billion for the Department of Defense (DOD)—nearly $32 billion, or 3 percent, more than the FY23 NDAA—$32.26 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and $12.1 billion in defense-related allocations for other federal agencies.

Included is a 5.2-percent pay raise for service members, boosted funding for the U.S. Navy to build 10 surface warships and 13 Virginia class attack submarines over the next five years, and initiatives to counter China in the Pacific, Russia in Europe, and aid Israel in the Middle East.

It is one of 12 annual appropriations bills that constitute the nation’s yearly budget. Only four have been adopted by both chambers with the federal government now largely operating under continuing resolutions that sustain fiscal year 2023 funding levels.

Mr. Johnson said when the NDAA moves out of the Senate, it will land on the House’s suspension calendar to ensure it gets to the floor quickly.

The version the House is getting back from the Senate and conference committee is not the defense budget it adopted in a late-July partisan vote.

Excluded from the NDAA, which it will see in coming days, are notable “culture war” amendments approved during often hours-long debates through spring and summer banning the DOD’s paid leave policy for service members traveling for abortions, gender-transition treatments and surgeries for transgender service members and their families, and funding for on-base drag shows.

House amendments that defund critical race theory programs and hiring for diversity, equity, and inclusion positions are included, as is a provision requiring DOD consider reinstating service members discharged for refusing COVID-19 vaccinations.

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