US Senate considers sweeping defense bill, heads for showdown with House

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Leaders of the U.S. Senate said on Wednesday they expected a sweeping defense policy bill to pass the chamber with strong bipartisan support, which could mean a clash with a largely party-line bill approved by the House of Representatives.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican leader Mitch McConnell told weekly news conferences they expected members from both parties to back the Senate version of the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.

The NDAA is one of the few major bills Congress passes every year, governing everything from pay raises for the troops to purchases of ships and aircraft. The fiscal 2024 bill authorizes a record $886 billion in spending.

The House passed its NDAA on Friday by a narrow 219-210, after Republicans added culturally conservative amendments addressing hot-button social issues. The vote was almost entirely along party lines, a departure from typical bipartisan support for a bill that has passed every year since 1961.

For example, the Republican-controlled House approved an amendment that would reverse a Pentagon policy of reimbursing expenses for service members who travel to obtain an abortion. That would not win the approval of the Democratic-controlled Senate, where a majority of lawmakers, including some Republicans, support abortion rights.

“In the House, there’s all kinds of partisan divisions. There’s no votes by Democrats and Republicans,” Schumer said. “… Compare that to the Senate, where bipartisanship is working well and smoothly. The contrast is glaring, and we hope, hope, hope, hope that the House takes a lesson from the Senate and works in a productive way so we can pass these important bills.”

The Senate voted on amendments to its version of the NDAA on Wednesday. One, which would block any U.S. president from leaving NATO without the Senate’s approval, passed by 65-28.

The NDAA is several steps from becoming law.

After passage of the separate House and Senate bills, members will hammer out a compromise, which must pass both chambers before it can be sent to the White House for President Joe Biden to sign into law or veto.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Additional reporting by Katharine Jackson in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)