The Senate Armed Services Committee voted to pass its version of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), proposing to boost defense spending by roughly $45 billion over what President Biden requested.
We’ll have more details on the bill, plus the Senate’s recent vote on a bill to expand benefits for veterans suffering health effects from toxic exposure, as well as a newly reported details on a call between Biden and top officials over rhetoric on Ukraine.
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? Subscribe here.
Senators considering $45B boost to defense budget
The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 23-3 to pass its version of its fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), proposing to boost defense spending by roughly $45 billion over what President Biden requested.
The measure allocates $857.64 billion in fiscal 2023 for national defense, according to a summary of the bill released by the committee. For comparison, the president proposed $813 billion in national defense spending when he unveiled his budget proposal in late March.
Of the bill’s top line, $817.33 billion would go the Pentagon alone, while $29.6 billion would go toward the Department of Energy. A separate $10.6 billion would go toward other defense-related activities outside of the legislation’s jurisdiction.
The bill now heads to the Senate floor, where the full upper chamber will consider the legislation.
Well above: The top lines are well above the $802.4 billion that the House Armed Services Committee is poised to consider when it reviews its version of the NDAA next Wednesday.
The House bill’s top line would give the Pentagon $772.5 billion, the Department of Energy $29.5 billion and another $400 million for other defense-related activities outside of the Department of Defense.
It doesn’t include an additional $11 billion in national defense spending outside of the committee’s jurisdiction.
Soon to come: Once the House passes its bill, both versions will then be reconciled during the conference committee process into one bill that the House and Senate will have to pass.
Even then, the NDAA is a policy bill that sets funding levels and guides policy, but it does not hold budget power. Therefore, an appropriations bill will still need to be passed.
Addressing inflation: In a summary of the Senate bill, the committee says it approved the $45 billion boost to “address the effects of inflation and accelerate the implementation of the National Defense Strategy.”
Inflation quickly emerged as a key debate point when Biden released his proposal for national defense spending earlier this year. Republicans have demanded that Biden increase defense spending for fiscal 2023 by 3 to 5 percent above inflation.
Other aid: The top line also provides additional security assistance to Ukraine, allows for accelerated production of certain munitions, and more funding for additional military construction projects and facilities maintenance.
Senate passes bill for veterans exposed to toxins
The Senate on Thursday voted 84-14 to pass legislation expanding benefits for veterans suffering health effects from toxic exposures during their military service.
The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022, among other things, expands the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care eligibility to veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The measure now heads back to the House, where it passed by a vote of
256-174 in March, with 34 Republicans joining Democrats to advance the measure. Thursday’s legislation includes several changes from the House version.
Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) — the top members on the Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee — unveiled the bipartisan legislation in mid-May after a year of negotiations.
The bill is named for Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who deployed to Iraq and Kosovo with the Ohio National Guard. He died in 2020 of cancer that he developed as a result to exposure to burn pits during his deployment.
Some background: Servicemembers have been exposed to toxins throughout history, though Thursday’s legislation is largely aimed at helping veterans who were exposed to burn pits in the post-9/11 era.
Burn pits were open areas of land used for combustion of trash and other waste like chemicals, human waste, munitions and food waste.
Exposures to the resulting chemicals has been found to cause health issues ranging from asthma, autoimmune disorders and lung cancers, some of which can take years after exposure to develop.
‘Too damn long’: In remarks on the Senate floor, Tester said that passing the bill was “righting a wrong that has been ignored for just way too damn long.”
“Generations after generations of Americans have gone to war, backed by a promise that we made to them when they signed up that we would care for them when they got home,” Tester said.
“Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in the case of toxic exposure. We failed them,” he added.
What the bill also does: In addition to expanding VA care eligibility to post-9/11 veterans, the bill creates a framework for the VA to establish presumptive service connections related to toxic exposures. It also adds 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to the agency’s list of presumptive service connections.
The legislation also expands presumptions related to Agent Orange — used largely during the Vietnam War — to veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Guam, among other places.
Biden told officials to tone down Ukraine remarks
President Biden told Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in April to tone down their rhetoric in supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia, NBC News reported Thursday.
The pushback reportedly came after the Pentagon chief said the Biden administration wanted Ukraine to win the war against the Kremlin and that the U.S. wanted a weakened Russia that could not launch another attack. Blinken then publicly aligned himself with Austin’s comments, sparking a flurry of news reports.
“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Austin said at the time after the Cabinet members visited Kyiv.
Not pleased: During a later conference call, Biden told the two officials he thought their remarks went too far and to tone them down, multiple current and former administration officials familiar with the call told NBC.
One unidentified official told the network that Biden was concerned that Austin’s words could set unrealistic goals and up the chance Washington could get pulled into a direct conflict with Moscow.
“Biden was not happy when Blinken and Austin talked about winning in Ukraine,” one of the sources said. “He was not happy with the rhetoric.”
After a mismanaged and chaotic attack on Ukraine beginning on Feb. 24, Russia in mid-April consolidated its forces for an attack on the country’s eastern Donbas region.
The fight has been bloody and is expected to turn into a protracted war, with President Volodymyr Zelensky pleading for more weapons to beat back the invasion and staying firm that no Ukrainian territory be ceded to Russia.
Concerns: But U.S. officials are growing more worried that Ukraine’s views are untenable, saying behind the scenes the Ukrainian president should shift his public position and “dial it back a little bit,” one of seven current U.S. officials, former U.S. officials and European officials told NBC.
Experts and U.S. and European officials have voiced a belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin will attempt to claim the Donbas and declare it as Russian territory, with Zelensky then having to negotiate for peace to end the conflict.
No pressure: The Biden administration, meanwhile, has maintained that it will not pressure Kyiv to end the war on any specific terms and is preparing for a long war.
“From the beginning, I’ve said and I’ve been — not everyone has agreed with me — nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. It’s their territory. I’m not going to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do,” Biden said on June 3. “But it appears to me that, at some point along the line, there’s going to have to be a negotiated settlement here. And what that entails, I don’t know.”
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