Defense & National Security — Defense policy bill passes House

The House has passed the annual defense authorization bill, sending the mammoth, $847 billion measure to the Senate for consideration and eventually to President Biden’s desk ahead of the year-end deadline. 

We’ll share what’s in the bill and how it ultimately got passed in the chamber, plus more on the release of Brittney Griner and what information Democrats want from the leaders of five consulting firms. 

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Sign up here or in the box below.

House passes annual defense funding bill

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Thursday passed in a bipartisan 350-80 vote in the House. It was approved under suspension of the rules, an expedited process to pass legislation in the House that requires a two-thirds majority. 

‘Important policy’: “I can’t go through every single item that is in this bill, but I can tell you that just about every member of this House has something in this bill that is important for policy, important in their district,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said ahead of the vote. “This is important policy that makes a huge difference for the people in this body and the people in this country, and I’ve urged us to support it.” 

What’s in it: The NDAA, legislation seen as a must-pass for Congress annually, includes an $817 billion top line for the Defense Department and about $30 billion to fund nuclear activities in the Department of Energy. 

The bill lays out the blueprint for how the billions of dollars will be allocated at the Pentagon, including a 4.6 percent pay raise for both service members and the agency’s civilian workforce, new weapons programs and equipment upgrades, and new programs and personnel policies. 

Fast tracked: House leaders decided to use the fast-track process after a last-minute push from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Wednesday night to set an accompanying vote on a bill bolstering the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had previously passed through the House but stalled in the Senate. The lower chamber was initially scheduled to pass the defense bill on Wednesday but punted action to Thursday because of the CBC holdup. 

Compromise: The final bill came together after months of negotiations between lawmakers of both parties and chambers, which bore victories for those on the left and right. 

In a win for Republicans, the measure includes language that repeals the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for U.S. service members, which has been in place since August 2021. 

The concession was seen as a surprise by many. The White House and Pentagon spoke out against it and similar measures to significantly limit the vaccine mandate were voted down in the House Armed Services Committee during the bill’s markup earlier this year. 

Lawmaker reactions: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) celebrated the victory Monday evening, calling the development “a win for our military.” 

Smith on Thursday said the original August 2021 mandate was the “absolute right policy” at the time, but he allowed that it now “does make sense to repeal that order.” 

He also urged the Pentagon to reevaluate its vaccine policy “and think about what the right and best policy would be.” 

Last minute holdups: Another stumbling block throughout negotiations was whether to include a deal on energy project permitting reform, which Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) had been pushing for. The initiative was ultimately excluded from the text, handing a significant victory to progressives who wanted it left out while dealing a blow to Manchin. 

The Congressional Progressive Caucus released a statement Tuesday night, shortly before the bill text was released, officially staking its opposition to the permitting reform deal — signaling headwinds for Manchin and the fate of the NDAA with his initiative included. 

Read the full story here 

Why Whelan wasn’t released along with Griner

The release of WNBA star Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap with Russia has brought renewed attention to the case of former Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018.  

Griner’s case received outsized media attention compared to Whelan’s given her status as a star women’s basketball player and Olympic gold medalist. But Whelan has been detained in Russia longer, and Thursday’s announcement, while celebrated by many, has raised difficult questions about why the U.S. was able to secure Griner’s freedom but not Whelan’s. 

A different case: “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,” President Biden said in remarks shortly after Griner’s release was made public. 

A senior administration official said Thursday they believe the Russians are holding Whelan’s release to a higher bar than Griner’s because of the espionage charges against him. 

Some background: Griner was arrested in February on charges that she illegally brought vape cartridges containing hashish oil into Russia. She was convicted on drug smuggling charges and sentenced in August to serve nine years in prison and had been recently transferred to a penal colony. Advocates had raised particular concern about her fate given she is a Black, gay woman. 

A swap: The White House announced Thursday that Griner was freed in exchange for the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms deal who was serving a 25-year sentence for charges related to weapons trafficking. 

Whelan has spent four years imprisoned in Russia and in 2020 was convicted on espionage charges. The U.S. has determined his detention to be unlawful and criticized the Russian criminal allegations and court process as a sham. The State Department said last week he had been transferred to a prison hospital in recent weeks, but has since been returned to the penal colony where he is serving his sentence. 

A long negotiation: While the Biden administration spent recent months trying to negotiate a deal that would lead to the release of Griner and Whelan together, including a reported deal that involved the release of Bout, the senior administration official said Russia ultimately rejected efforts to free Whelan. 

“This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none,” the official said, speaking in a call with reporters shortly after Griner’s release was made public. 

Read more here 

Also from The Hill

Dems ask firms about work with foreign governments

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) sent letters to the leaders of five consulting firms on Wednesday asking for information on their companies’ work with foreign governments in response to a recent Washington Post investigation

The Post’s investigation found that more than 500 retired U.S. military personnel have taken jobs with foreign governments, mostly in countries known for human rights abuses and political repression. 

‘An alarming finding’: “This was an alarming finding, raising questions about whether these former U.S. military officials and the firms that hire them are working in the best interests of the United States government and its citizens, or in the interests of some of the world’s worst regimes,” Warren and Jacobs, who sit on the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, respectively, wrote

“Given these concerns, I ask that you provide information regarding the employees of your firm that have worked on behalf of foreign governments, particularly those with a history of repression and human rights abuses, and how your firm ensures its officials are not involved in illegal or inappropriate activities that harm U.S. national security interests,” the letter continues. 

Where the letters were sent: The letters ask each firm — Booz Allen Hamilton, Fairfax National Security Solutions, Jones Group International & Ironhand Security, Iron Net Cybersecurity and The Cohen Group — to answer five questions by Dec. 21 about their work with foreign governments, including by providing a list of former servicemembers at their firms who engage with those clients. 

“By funneling U.S. expertise through ‘consulting’ firms that collect six- and seven-figure paychecks, foreign governments have been able to build up their military forces with U.S. assistance and without ongoing oversight from the U.S. government,” the lawmakers wrote. 

Read that story here 


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