House and Senate negotiators released their compromise draft of the annual defense authorization bill late Wednesday night, stripping out a host of controversial social issues in favor of advancing a 5.2% pay raise for troops and re-upping a host of needed provisions for Defense Department operations next year.
The legislation — which spans nearly 2,400 pages, not including additional report language — sets nearly all of the military’s new policy provisions and spending priorities for the year. It is viewed as a must-pass bill by most lawmakers and has successfully advanced through Congress for more than six decades, even among partisan strife in the House and Senate.
But the separate House and Senate drafts of this year’s authorization bill were packed with an array of controversial issues, endangering bipartisan support for the final compromise.
House Republicans had included provisions eliminating the Defense Department’s abortion access policy for troops, banning certain military care for transgender service members, eliminating the post of chief diversity officer for the department and prohibiting all future mask mandates for pandemic prevention efforts throughout the ranks.
Senate Democrats had vowed to oppose those ideas, and removed all of them in conference committee work over the last week. In a joint statement, the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees said reaching a compromise that would get Republican and Democratic support was their top priority.
“Providing for our national defense is Congress’ most important responsibility under the U.S. Constitution, and the NDAA is key to fulfilling that duty,” they said in a statement. “Our nation faces unprecedented threats from China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea. It is vital that we act now to protect our national security.
“Through months of hard-fought and productive negotiations, we have crafted a bipartisan and bicameral conference report that strengthens our national security and supports our service members.”
Four conservative House members on the conference committee — Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Ronny Jackson of Texas, Mike Waltz of Florida, and Marjorie Taylor-Greene of Georgia — declined to sign the final conference report in protest of the changes.
The compromise measure is expected to be voted on by the full House and Senate by the end of next week. The White House has not indicated if President Joe Biden will sign the newest draft of the bill, but most of the objections noted by administration officials have been removed.
Under the final authorization plan, troops would receive a 5.2% pay raise starting in January, their largest in 22 years.
For an E-4 with three years in service, the 5.2% pay raise would mean about $1,700 more next year in take-home pay compared to 2023. For senior enlisted and junior officers, the hike equals about $3,000 more. For an O-4 with 12 years of service, it equates to more than $5,400 in extra pay in 2024.
But the conference committee abandoned House lawmakers’ plans for additional targeted pay raises for junior enlisted troops, opting instead to push that discussion into next year’s authorization bill debate. Lawmakers will require the Defense Department to issue a report on the impact of potential basic pay boosts for those service members in early spring.
Negotiators did include several provisions on restricting diversity, equity and inclusion training in military operations, but far fewer than what House Republicans had pushed for.
One provision will prevent defense leaders from creating any new DEI-focused positions until a review of current jobs related to the issue is completed. Another would limit pay for posts related solely to those issues.
Lawmakers also included language encouraging service officials to allow troops booted for refusing COVID-19 vaccines to re-enlist, provided that vaccine objection was their only disqualifying action.
Earlier on Wednesday, recruiting officials from each of the armed forces said of the 8,000-plus individuals dismissed for that offense, only about 40 individuals have so far come back after the vaccine mandate was repealed in December 2022.
The final authorization plan calls for cuts in active-duty personnel for the Army (down 7,000 to 445,000), the Navy (down 16,200 to 337,800), the Air Force (down 5,344 to 320,00) and the Marine Corps (down 4,700 to 172,300). Only the Space Force saw an increase (up 800 to 9,400).
Actually paying for all of those personnel and the equipment purchase priorities outlined in the authorization bill will fall to congressional appropriators in their fiscal 2024 defense budget bill.
Last month, lawmakers approved a short-term budget extension of fiscal 2023 spending levels for the Defense Department until Feb. 2. That means even if the authorization bill is signed into law later this month, many of the programs and initiatives outlined in it won’t be fully funded until early February, more than four months into the new fiscal year.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.