WASHINGTON - The House on Thursday approved its version of the annual defense authorization bill, giving a hefty bipartisan endorsement to open an independent investigation of U.S. failures in Afghanistan, require women to register for the draft, and overhaul how the military prosecutes sex assault.
The 316-to-113 vote in favor of the $768 billion measure - $740 billion of which authorizes spending for the Pentagon, military operations and personnel and $28 billion of which goes to the Energy Department - represents a rare moment of unity in a Congress otherwise riven with partisan rancor over questions of budgeting. It also reflects Republicans' and Democrats' shared frustration with decisions that led to U.S. troops' chaotic exit from Afghanistan last month.
The legislation - which has yet to be negotiated with the Senate - contains several demands for an accounting of the people and weapons left behind. It directs the Pentagon to detail how it will continue to extract American citizens, green-card holders and Afghans with special immigrant visa status who were not able to leave during the 17-day evacuation from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
It also orders defense and intelligence leaders to make clear how they plan to safeguard against terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan, now that the United States does not have a footprint on the ground and is relying solely on "over the horizon" capabilities - capacities that proved to be faulty last month, when U.S. troops killed an aid worker and his family in an errant drone strike.
Afghanistan is not the only sphere of conflict that received special attention in the House bill. On Thursday, a bipartisan majority approved two amendments ordering the United States to cease offering support to Saudi Arabian units carrying out bombing campaigns and causing civilian casualties in Yemen. The measures are similar in intent to war powers resolutions to curtail such support that Congress approved in years past, only to be stymied by President Donald Trump's veto.
If the provisions are included in the final defense bill, it would be far more difficult for President Joe Biden to issue a similar veto, as the provision cannot be separated out from the legislation.
Many of the measures in the House bill may influence how the Senate proceeds with consideration of its version, which was marked up by the Senate Armed Services Committee in July and released to the public only this week. The House and Senate bills will have to be merged following the Senate's passage of its legislation, and thenboth chambers must approvethe finalized package before it is sent to the president for his signature.
The Senate bill already aligns with the House's in some key areas, including the provision requiring women to register for the Selective Service, the system that is drawn upon in the event of a draft. Considered controversial just five years ago, the idea has gainedbipartisan support as combat roles previously closed to women have opened.
The House bill's provisions on reforming the military justice system for cases of sexual assault may also prove influential over the Senate's bill, which included competing proposals to address the issue. In the House legislation, cases pertaining to sex crimes would be taken out of the chain of command and handled by an independent military prosecutor authorizedto bring charges.
The House bill envisions another structural change to the military's organization that is likely to garner attention in the Senate: an extension of the ban on uniformed officers serving as defense secretary after they leave the service. The bill approved Thursday would raise the time requirement from seven to 10 years.
Members of Congress have been frustrated that they were asked to waive the statutory requirement for civilian control of the military twice in recent years: once to approve four-star Gen. Jim Mattis as Trump's first defense secretary, and again to approve four-star Gen. Lloyd Austin as Biden's.
The requirement for such a cooling-off period was 10 years when it was first established in 1947. It was reduced to seven years in 2008.
The legislation also underwrites a $15 per hour minimum wage for all defense contractors - a policy that Biden announced earlier this year, but a statement that nonetheless indicates House lawmakers' embrace of that threshold as a basic level of income. Other attempts to establish $15 as the national hourly minimum wage have failed; while it has been raised in some states, federally, the minimum wage remains at $7.25. It is currently $10.95 for defense contractors whose jobs do not include tips.
In addition to the amendments ending U.S. support for Saudi military campaigns in Yemen, the bill was updated to require all military commission proceedings at the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, be broadcast online.
The House steered clear of adopting sweeping changes in other areas. A bipartisan majority of the chamber rejected a proposal from Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., to curtail the presence of U.S. troops in Syria without congressional approval.
Liberal Democrats lost efforts to winnow the defense budget by reducing the funding authorized in the bill, which clocks in tens of billions of dollars higher than what Biden requested to spend on the Pentagon and military operations in the next fiscal year. They also lost a vote to include restrictions on what surplus military equipment can be transferred to local police departments - a subject that has been a matter of tense debate as the nation has grappled with problems of police brutality and excessive use of force against civilians.
Earlier Thursday, the House approved a separate spending bill to give $1 billion to Israel for its Iron Dome missile defense system. The sum was spiraled off into its own legislation after members who had protested arms sales to Israel objected to including the sum in a continuing budget resolution that the House approved earlier this week to fund the federal government through early December.