By ANDREW TAYLOR Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Tuesday voted to send to President Donald Trump an annual defense policy bill that combines a $738 billion Pentagon budget blueprint with legislation to provide federal employees with 12 weeks of paid parental leave.
The sweeping 86-8 vote followed easy passage last week by the Democratic-controlled House, whose negotiators were then forced to yield on numerous provisions seeking to rein in Trump after weeks of arduous House-Senate negotiations.
The annual defense measure has passed every year since the Kennedy administration, invariably as a traditionally bipartisan effort. Trump has said he’ll sign the bill, which delivers a 3.1% pay raise for Pentagon personnel, the largest in more than a decade.
Alabama’s two senators each voted in favor of the bill. Republican Richard Shelby, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the bill “contains major victories for Alabama and the nation’s defense and aerospace sectors.”
Democrat Doug Jones, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, touted the inclusion of a provision repealing the so-called “Military Widow’s Tax,” which he championed alongside Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
“We worked hard to make sure this bill reflects our values, and that’s why it includes so many provisions to not only shore up our national defense, but to take care of servicemembers and their families,” Jones said.
Trump has crowed about the “U.S. Space Force” provision, which mostly reorganizes existing personnel into a new branch of the Air Force. The House had passed the idea in previous years under GOP control only to see it die in the Senate.
Alabama Congressman Mike Rogers, R-Saks, has long pushed for the creation of a Space Force. He said he was “ecstatic” to see the project finally come to fruition.
“This is an important step for our national security. Our adversaries are moving quickly in space and this new service will allow us to quickly realign our resources and efforts towards countering them,” Rogers said.
The compromise between the Democratic-controlled House and the GOP-held Senate broke free after Republicans agreed to accept a Democratic demand — endorsed by Trump in end-stage negotiations — for the landmark parental leave provision. Negotiators also endorsed Trump’s call for a new “space force” — a provision previously backed by the House on a bipartisan basis.
The agreement followed weeks of difficult negotiations. Democrats were forced to drop a provision to block Trump from transferring money from Pentagon accounts to construct a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. They also dropped protections for transgender troops and tougher regulations on toxic chemicals that are found in firefighting foam used at military installations.
“It is safe to say that many have misgivings about one provision or another. but there are so many other positive provisions in the bill that it is a legislative success … that helps the military and the American people,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.
“It’s one of the few authorization bills that does pass year after year. And that’s because everyone knows how important it is. It usually doesn’t get bogged down in partisan fighting,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla. “This year, the process of getting to a final conference report was certainly tougher than most. It took a few months of hard-fought negotiations, but the end result is a great bill that we can all be proud to support.”
Democrats did come away with the parental leave benefit, which GOP negotiators fought behind the scenes, and the measure also includes a repeal, long-sought by both parties, of the so-called widow’s tax on military death benefits. That provision required 65,000 people whose spouses have been killed in action to forfeit part of their Pentagon death benefit when they also received benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Democrats also agreed to let go of House-passed provisions to restrict Trump from waging war against Iran unless Congress approves; ban deployment of new submarine-launched, low-yield nuclear weapons; and ban U.S. military assistance for strikes by Saudi-led forces in Yemen.
The bill contains a measure called the Caesar Act, which had failed to gain congressional approval in several previous attempts led in part by Rep. Eliot Engel of New York. It applies sanctions to supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military efforts in the country’s civil war, which include Russia and Iran. It also grants authorities to the U.S. secretary of state to support those collecting evidence and pursuing prosecutions of people who have committed war crimes in Syria.
The popularity of the annual defense policy bill reflects strong support among lawmakers for military personnel and the economic boost that military installations and defense contractors provide back home. Recent defense increases have been a boon for contractors such as Lockheed Martin, lead manufacturer of the F-35 fighter.