US lawmakers introduce sweeping defense bill, drop most ‘culture war’ issues

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers unveiled an annual defense policy bill leaving out most of the divisive social issues, such as abortion rights and treatment of transgender service members, that had threatened to derail the must-pass legislation.

The Senate and House of Representatives Armed Services Committees released the 3,000-page text of the Fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, late on Wednesday. This year’s bill, an annual measure that sets policy for the Department of Defense, authorizes a record $886 billion in spending, a 3% increase over last year.

The measure is a compromise between versions of the NDAA passed by the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate earlier this year.

It authorizes a 5.2% pay increase for service members, measures to address competition with China including new training assistance for Taiwan, a four-month extension of a key domestic surveillance authority and purchases of equipment including ships, helicopters, submarines, rockets, bombs and other weapons.

It also contains provisions that could pave the way for Australia to receive several U.S. nuclear-powered submarines as part of the AUKUS agreement between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.

The bill does not include many provisions – which critics describe as “culture war” matters – included in the version of the legislation passed by the Republican-controlled House, and opposed by most Democrats, who control the Senate.

The compromise NDAA does not overturn the Pentagon’s policy of reimbursing servicemembers who travel to obtain abortions, which prompted Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville to block most military promotions for most of the year.

It also drops House language that would have blocked coverage of transition surgeries for transgender troops.

Congress has passed an NDAA annually since 1961, one of the few major pieces of legislation to become law every year. The Senate could take its first votes within days, with the House of Representatives expected to follow suit later this month.

The bill – the result of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and House – is expected to pass both chambers and be signed into law by President Joe Biden, despite expected opposition from the hard-right wing of the House.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)