The House Armed Services Committee passed a $612 billion defense policy bill early Thursday morning after nearly 18 hours of debate, sending the bill to the full House for consideration.
“This is a bill the entire committee can be proud of,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican and chair of the committee said in a statement. “After a day of extensive debate, we have produced legislation that is the first step in a process of substantial reform.”
The committee voted 60-2 to send the bill to be considered by the full House next month.
The budget includes $515 billion in discretionary funding and $89.2 billion in an overseas continuing operations war fund. It meets the president’s budget request, but stays under the sequestration caps by adding to the war fund.
Lawmakers on both sides argued that adding in money through the overseas continuing operations fund was not the best way to budget for the department, but were unable to find a solution to lift the sequestration caps for this year’s bill. Military leaders have also warned that additional funding in the war fund makes it more difficult to budget for future years.
The president has previously threatened to veto budget bills that keep the sequestration caps in place and Democrats have worried that Mr. Obama will not approve of a budget that provides more money for defense through the war fund workaround but not for other domestic priorities still subject to budget caps.
Debate on the bill that touches every part of the Defense Department ended just after 4:30 a.m. and covered a range of topics, from additional support services for survivors of military sexual assault to a prohibition on designating the greater sage grouse as an endangered species because of the effect it could have on military training ranges.
The bill will prohibit the military from retiring its fleet of A-10s, nicknamed Warthogs, under an amendment from Rep. Martha McSally, Arizona Republican and a former A-10 pilot. While the military has been trying to retire the aircraft for years, saying they are too old and expensive to fly, lawmakers have required the services to keep the planes, saying that there’s no replacement yet.
“Unlike years past, my amendment will fully protect the Warthog next year. Not only does it prohibit the retirement of any A-10s, it prevents any additional back door attempts at mothballing these aircraft, such as placing them in backup status,” Ms. McSally said in a statement.
The defense authorization also moves ahead on making reforms to the military retirement system by instituting a 401(k)-like retirement plan recommended earlier this year by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.
While Rep. Chris Gibson, New York Republican, offered an amendment to slow the process down and address reforms in the fiscal 2017 version of the bill, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to move ahead with the changes, noting that all currently serving troops and retirees will be grandfathered into the old pension system.
Lawmakers also asked the secretary of the Army to develop a clearer rules for breast-feeding moms who are serving in an amendment from Rep. Niki Tsongas, Massachusetts Democrat.
Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, also succeeded in introducing an amendment that would let transgender troops change the name and gender on their discharge papers retroactively after getting out of the military. This would prevent an estimated 134,000 transgender veterans from having to reveal their gender change to potential employers every time they show their military records, Rep. Speier said.
“Our transgender veterans deserve to have accurate military documents that don’t force them to come out with every job, college and mortgage application. A name change is so simple, and it’s the least we can do for their service to our nation,” Ms. Speier said.
Lawmakers approved an amendment that would let the military start placing women in combat positions that had been previously closed 30 calendar days after notifying Congress, introduced by Rep. Loretta Sanchez, California Democrat. The law previously had required the services to wait 30 days that Congress was in session, which could take months.
Debate on that amendment quickly devolved into a heated discussion on the merits of women in combat, with several of the committee’s female combat veterans speaking up and noting that debating the issue is pointless since women in fact are already serving in combat in many places.
“When members of Congress debate women in combat, I look down at the stumps of my legs and I wonder, where do they think I was, in a bar fight?” said Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat who lost her legs while flying combat mission in a helicopter over Iraq.
Rep. Ryan Zinke, Montana Republican and a former SEAL, raised some eyebrows when he stated that “female anatomy’s a little different” during the debate, during which he argued 30 days isn’t too long to wait to make sure integration is done right.
An amendment to award the Purple Heart to members of the military killed or wounded in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing passed en bloc without any debate. Rep. Steve Russell, Oklahoma Republican, proposed the amendment to present the Purple Heart to six members of the military.
Purple Hearts for victims of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting were approved in the fiscal 2015 defense bill and awarded earlier this month.
The House debate is just the first step in a long process to pass a final bill. The proposals will still need to approved by the full House and then reconciled with negotiators from the Senate Armed Services Committee before being signed by the president to become law.
Debate on the defense bill regularly stretches until the early morning hours, but this year’s went especially late after lawmakers had to recess twice for the Japanese prime minister’s address to Congress in the morning and a series of votes in the afternoon.
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