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Senate passes annual defense policy bill

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin talks with House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday as, one day ahead of a government shutdown deadline, Congress scrambled to wrap-up unfinished business, voting decisively to send President Barack Obama a defense policy bill.Cliff Owen/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed the annual defense policy bill, sending the $618.7 billion must-pass measure to the White House for the president’s signature.

The legislation, directing funding toward Pentagon programs and military operations, was approved on a 92 to 7 vote.

House and Senate negotiators locked horns for months over several controversial proposals that stalled the bill, preventing it from being completed before lawmakers headed home in the fall to campaign ahead of the election. But the bulk of those measures — such as a requirement that women register for a potential draft, a waiver allowing federal contractors to make religious-based hiring decisions, and a prohibition on listing the sage grouse as an endangered species — were left out of the final legislation.


The defense package, which the House approved by a 375 to 34 vote last week, still contains a few provisions likely to rankle the White House: It shrinks the size of the National Security Council from 400 to 200 staff positions and taps a war-funding account to authorize $3.2 billion above the amount lawmakers agreed to last year as part of a two-year budget deal.

The White House has not threatened to veto the legislation.

The defense policy bill directs funding toward improving military readiness, increasing the size of the services, and reconfiguring acquisition programs. But it also leaves a great deal of decision-making authority in the hands of the Pentagon, particularly on issues governing where military aid dollars will be spent and how new defense priorities, such as an expanded authority to pursue missile defense, will be implemented.

Many of the provisions in the bill respond to requests made by President Barack Obama’s Defense Department — but it will be primarily up to President-elect Donald Trump to decide how to use them. In some instances, Trump’s global stance may not line up with authorities granted under the bill. For example, Congress has provided millions in lethal aid to Ukraine to help the government in its war against Russian-backed separatists. The Obama administration never took advantage of that authority and Trump’s stated affinity toward Russia may make him loath to act where the Obama administration did not. The bill also gives Trump the authority to send surface-to-air missiles to help Syrian fighters — but during the campaign, Trump expressed a preference for getting out of Syria, not getting more involved in its ongoing civil war.


Defense hawks on the Hill are also waiting to see if Trump’s Pentagon will underwrite many of the defense projects that have eluded them under the Obama administration — or if the concerns of deficit hawks will trump the GOP’s affinity for building up defense spending. How that plays out will depend in large part on whether the Trump administration and GOP-led Congress are able to work out a deal to get rid of the budget caps, known as sequestration, that have kept defense spending in check the last few years.