The Senate is on track to pass a defense policy bill that pumps $700 billion into the Pentagon budget, expands U.S. missile defenses in response to North Korea's growing hostility and refuses to allow excess military bases to be closed.
The legislation is expected to be approved on Monday by a wide margin in another burst of bipartisanship amid President Donald Trump's push for cooperation with congressional Democrats. The 1,215-page measure defies a number of White House objections, but Trump hasn't threatened to veto the measure. The bill helps him honor a pledge to boost military spending by tens of billions of dollars.
Sen. John McCain, the Armed Services Committee chairman battling an aggressive type of brain cancer, has guided the bill toward passage over the last week as he railed against Washington gridlock and political gamesmanship. But McCain, R-Ariz., couldn't quell disputes among his colleagues over several contentious amendments that so far have been blocked from votes and failed to be added to the bill.
Among them is a proposal by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, that would have protected transgender service members from being kicked out of the armed forces. Gillibrand along with McCain seek to achieve the same goal through separate legislation they introduced late last week. The bill also is supported by Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services panel, and Collins.
Another amendment, from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would have prevented the government from detaining indefinitely U.S. citizens apprehended on American soil who are suspected of supporting a terrorist group.
Approved by the Armed Services Committee by a vote of 27-0 in late June, the Senate bill would provide $640 billion for core Pentagon operations, such as buying weapons and paying troops, and another $60 billion for wartime missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Trump's budget request sought $603 billion for basic functions and $65 billion for overseas missions.
With North Korea's nuclear program a clear threat to the U.S. and its allies, the bill would provide $8.5 billion to strengthen U.S. missile and defense systems. That's $630 million more than the Trump administration sought for those programs, according to a committee analysis.
North Korea last week conducted its longest-ever test flight of a ballistic missile, firing an intermediate-range weapon over U.S. ally Japan into the northern Pacific Ocean. The launch signaled both defiance of its rivals and a significant technological advance.
The legislation requires the Defense Department to deploy up to 14 additional ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, that will expand to 58 the number of interceptors designed to destroy incoming warheads. The department also is tasked with finding a storage site for as many as 14 spare interceptors, and senators envision an eventual arsenal of 100 with additional missile fields in the Midwest and on the East Coast.
The White House, in a statement issued earlier this month, called the order for more interceptors "premature" given the Pentagon's ongoing review of missile defense programs.
Although the bill calls for more military spending than at any point during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, major hurdles need to be cleared before all the extra money materializes. Congress would have to roll back a 2011 law that set strict limits on military spending. That's a tall order in the Senate, where support from Democrats will be necessary to get the 60 votes required to lift the so-called budget caps.
As their House counterparts did, the Senate bill rejects Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' plan to launch a new round of base closings starting in 2021. He told lawmakers in June that closing excess installations would save $10 billion over a five-year period. Mattis said the savings could be used to acquire four nuclear submarines or dozens of jet fighters. But military installations are prized possessions in states and lawmakers refused to go along.