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House Poised To Approve National Defense Authorization Bill


Every year for the past 56 years, Congress has done something that could seem impossible - passed a huge bill full of controversial measures with bipartisan support. This annual bill authorizes the Pentagon's spending and spells out defense policies. It's called the National Defense Authorization Act. The House votes on this year's version this week, and NPR national security correspondent David Welna is with us now to talk about it. Hey there.


MCEVERS: And so you've been following these big defense bills for years. What's different about this one?

WELNA: Well, for one thing, this would be the bill that helps President Trump deliver on his promise to make the U.S. military the biggest and strongest ever. But this is also a bill that has some language that's squarely at odds with Trump's naysayer stance on climate change. It's an amendment that was added late last month by the armed services committee. And it instructs the military service branches to identify their 10 military installations that are most likely to be impacted by climate change over the next two decades and to factor climate change into their strategic battle plans. Here's Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin pitching the measure to the committee.


JIM LANGEVIN: This amendment shows that Congress has the department's back. It signals that we are not naive to the dangers of climate change or defense strategy. And it tells those researches on the front lines of threat assessment that Congress will work with them, not in spite of them, as we together craft a sane and sober strategy to defend the United States from a variety of threats.

MCEVERS: So the House armed services committee has already approved this bill. Does that mean that Republicans are going along with this amendment?

WELNA: Not only did they go along with it in a clear voice vote. They even talked it up. Here's Jim Bridenstine, who's a Navy veteran from Oklahoma.


JIM BRIDENSTINE: There are real changes in the Arctic that do affect the Navy. The Arctic ice is disappearing. There are strategic changes that are being implicated here. And it's important for the Department of Defense to report to Congress on this. We're talking about a report here.

WELNA: The only Republican who spoke against the climate change measure was Liz Cheney. She's former Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter and Wyoming's new representative in Congress. Cheney dismissed climate change as an irrelevant political issue that she said did not belong in the bill. And she added that there is not any evidence that climate change causes war. But most of her fellow Republicans paid no heed to her calls to oppose the measure.

MCEVERS: With this climate change measure in the bill, is it something that President Trump will support?

WELNA: Well, clearly there are some things in this thousand-plus-page bill that he won't like, like the climate change measures. And there could also still be a lot of things added to the bill as it works its way through Congress. But there are things that Trump may like in this bill, including a measure that orders the secretary of defense to donate a hundred thousand surplus guns to a private corporation that's headquartered in Anniston, Ala. That just happens to be the hometown of Mike Rogers, the Republican congressman who sponsored that measure.

Democrats on the committee said this looked an awful lot like an earmark, which is a measure that benefits only its sponsor's district. And though Congress has banned all earmarks, the measure did pass. And Rogers did get some bipartisan support for another measure he put in this bill. It would create something called Space Corps as a branch of the military similar to the Marine Corps. And it would take away from the Air Force all programs having to do with outer space. And not surprisingly, that measure is fiercely opposed by the Air Force.

MCEVERS: As we said, this bill has passed Congress every year for more than 50 years. Quickly, will that happen this time, too, do you think? You have about 30 seconds.

WELNA: It's hard to know, well, because this bill has a big problem. It authorizes about $700 billion in defense spending for next year, but that's $150 billion more than what Congress is actually allowed to spend. It all goes back to the Budget Control Act that Republicans pushed through six years ago that put caps on all spending. Trump's proposed budget shifts money from non-defense spending to the Pentagon to help cover that shortfall. But it's hard to imagine Senate Democrats going along with that. So at this point, this looks like a defense bill that promises a lot more than it's politically possible to deliver.

MCEVERS: NPR's David Welna. Thank you very much.

WELNA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.