The Senate has passed the annual defense spending measure

The Senate has passed the annual defense spending measure

The plan to repeal the COVID-19 vaccine requirement for members of the U.S. military and allocate roughly $858 billion for national security was approved by the Senate on Thursday and will be signed into law by President Joe Biden.

The package allocates approximately $45 billion more for defense programs than Mr. Biden asked and nearly 10% more than last year’s bill to account for inflation and enhance the nation’s military competitiveness vis-à-vis China and Russia. It provides a 4.6% salary increase for servicemembers and civilian Defense Department employees.

The defense policy measure was approved by the Senate by a vote of 83 to 11. The legislation got broad support from both parties in the House last week.

The Senate must still vote on a continuing resolution to finance the government until December 23. If approved, the one-week stopgap legislation will temporarily avert a government shutdown by sustaining funding for the government when the current measure ends on December 16.

To get Republican support for the 4,408-page defense measure, Democrats succumbed to Republican requests to eliminate the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for service members. The law directs Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to revoke the requirement he issued in August 2021.

Before accepting the package, the Senate rejected several amendments, including a proposal from West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin to expedite the regulatory process for energy projects. Some environmental advocacy groups opposed the initiative vehemently out of concern that it would expedite fossil fuel projects such as gas pipelines and limit public involvement on such projects.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) addresses the media at the weekly Senate Democrat Leadership press conference on December 13, 2022 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. / Getty Pictures

In exchange for his backing of a major bill to combat climate change, Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy Committee, obtained a commitment from Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders last summer to support the permitting package.

Legislation authored by Machin establishes timelines for National Environmental Policy Act reviews of significant energy and natural resource projects. It would require courts to accelerate their consideration of lawsuits concerning energy project permits. Additionally, it instructs federal agencies to authorize the completion of a natural gas pipeline in his home state and Virginia “without additional administrative or judicial delay or hindrance.”

Without reform, the United States is the most litigious nation in the world, Manchin warned his colleagues.

A few hours before Thursday’s vote, Mr. Biden expressed his support for Manchin’s plan. He stated that far too many projects experience delays and defined Manchin’s amendment as “a means to decrease Americans’ energy bills, enhance U.S. energy security, and increase our capacity to construct and link energy projects to the grid.”

Not only did some environmental advocacy organizations criticize Manchin’s idea, but so did a large number of Republicans. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “reform in name only” because he believed it was insufficient.

The amendment fell short of the necessary 60 votes for approval, 47-47.

The amendment proposed by Republican senators Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Ted Cruz of Texas also failed. It would have reinstated service members discharged for disobeying an order to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine and compensated them for any lost pay and benefits incurred as a result of their separation.

Over 8,000 service members were dismissed for refusing to receive this experimental vaccine; thus, I urge my colleagues to support Senator Cruz’s and my amendment.

However, opponents were concerned about the precedent of rewarding disobedient military personnel. The Democratic head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, stated that instructions are not suggestions, but rather commands.

Reed asked, “What message do we convey if we pass this bill? It’s a very hazardous one.” “What we’re saying the soldiers is, ‘If you disagree, don’t follow the order, and then lobby Congress, and they’ll restore your rank, benefits, or anything,'”

The amendment failed, with forty senators in favor and fifty-four opposed.

The defense bill establishes policy and outlines future investments. To make many ideas a reality, lawmakers will need to pass supplemental spending measures. It is one of the last laws Congress is likely to pass before adjournment, so legislators were eager to attach their top priorities to it.

The decision to remove the vaccine requirement for service members proved to be one of the more contentious elements, but Democrats agreed to it in order to advance the package.

As of the beginning of this month, almost 99 percent of active-duty Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps personnel had been vaccinated, and 98 percent of Army personnel. Non-vaccinated service members are prohibited from deployment, particularly sailors and Marines on ships. There could be a few exclusions depending on religious or other exemptions and the military member’s duty.

The immunization rates for the Guard and Reserve are lower than the national average, but still exceed 90%.

 

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