House passes bill authorizing $770 billion in Pentagon funding and setting Defense policy

The National Defense Authorization Act, the annual must-pass piece of legislation that sets the policy agenda and authorizes almost $770 billion in funding for the Department of Defense, is set for final passage in the House of Representatives.

By Ellie Kaufman and Annie Grayer, CNN

(CNN) -- The National Defense Authorization Act, the annual must-pass legislation that sets the policy agenda and authorizes almost $770 billion in funding for the Department of Defense, passed in the House of Representatives on Tuesday night.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where it will likely be voted on later this week, before it can be signed into law by President Joe Biden.

The bill passed with strong bipartisan support, with a final vote of 363-70, with 169 Democrats and 194 Republicans voting for the bill, while 51 Democrats and 19 Republicans voted against it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the only member to not vote.

The final version of the bill, which leadership from both chambers have agreed to, contains changes to how sexual assault and harassment are prosecuted and handled within the military, a 2.7% pay increase for military service members and Defense Department civilian employees, and $300 million in military aid to the Ukrainian Security Assistance Initiative, adding $50 million more than what was proposed in the budget request, summaries of the bill's text from the House and Senate Armed Services Committees stated.

The sweeping bill targets issues that have been top-of-mind for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin since he took the helm of the department in January, from the handling of sexual assault and harassment within the military to changes to bias and discrimination training for all military branches.

On the foreign policy front, it also establishes a "multi-year independent Afghanistan War Commission" to examine the war in Afghanistan after the US military withdrawal in August, covering the entire 20 years of the war.

The bill includes a "statement of policy on Taiwan," saying it is US policy to maintain the ability of the United States to resist a fait accompli against Taiwan, that would "jeopardize the security" of the Taiwanese people, the bill states.

While the bill is often seen as a bipartisan effort, with leadership in both parties and both chambers of Congress coming to an agreement on the text before the House vote Tuesday, not every member was pleased with the final result.

Democratic Rep. Anthony Brown of Maryland outlined why he would be voting against the legislation. He said he believes the bill doesn't go far enough to address racial bias in the military justice system.

"At a time when Democrats control the House, the Senate, and the Executive Branch, it is an unconscionable failure to deliver a National Defense Authorization Act that does not meet the values of equity and justice for which we have long strived or a bill that does not meaningfully protect the foundations of our democracy," Brown said in a statement.

Military culture

The final version of the bill removes the commander of a military command "from decisions related to the prosecution of covered crimes," including "sexual assault," an important shift that military leaders including Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley have publicly said they support. Instead, the bill establishes, each service will now have an Office of the Special Trial Counsel to handle prosecution of those crimes, including sexual assault, that will report to each service secretary.

The bill makes sexual harassment a crime in the Uniform Code of Military Justice for the first time. "All claims of sexual harassment will be required to be investigated by an independent investigator outside of the chain of command," the bill summary states.

It also directs the department to "track allegations of retaliation by victims" of sexual assault and harassment. Each service will be required to track the demographic information of both the person accused of committing sexual assault and harassment crimes and the victim of those crimes.

The bill authorizes a 2.7% pay increase for military service members and DoD civilian employees, and it authorizes the secretary of defense to pay a "basic needs allowance" to qualified low-income service members who need additional assistance. Many military service members and their families have suffered the same setbacks other Americans have experienced during the pandemic, with military spouses losing jobs and families struggling to make ends meet amidst rising inflation on the cost of basics like food, gas and housing.

Havana syndrome, China and Afghanistan

On "anomalous health incidents," more colloquially known as Havana Syndrome, the bill authorizes the President to appoint a "senior official" to lead a "whole-of-government" effort to address the incidents, the summary states. The bill also creates a "Department of Defense cross functional team" to coordinate the Pentagon's response to the health incidents. The team will address "national security challenges," posed by the health incidents and ensure that those who have suffered from the incidents receive timely medical care, the bill states.

The bill directs the President to develop a classified "Grand Strategy with Respect to China," with an unclassified summary, the bill text states. It also directs DoD put together several reports on China's activities, from their military and security developments, modernization technologies for their military applications, to their strategy in Latin American and the Caribbean, the bill states.

After Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, put a hold on the chamber's version of the NDAA last week because his amendment which would have prohibited the US from buying products produced in forced labor camps by Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province of China, that provision was included in the final version of the bill.

On Afghanistan, the bill establishes the independent Afghanistan War Commission to "examine" the 20-year conflict, and it requires the secretary to provide "in-depth" reports to Congress about the US' ability to counter terrorism in the region, "accountability" of military equipment left in the country and "any plans" to evacuate American citizens and "Afghan allies" who are still there, the summary states.

The bill also establishes an "office, organizational structure, and provides authorities to address unidentified aerial phenomena," also known as UFOs.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Tuesday.

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