Biden signs defense policy bill, extending controversial spying program

The White House declared its support for the final legislation after House and Senate negotiators agreed to drop the most objectionable provisions for Biden and Democrats — including a proposal to roll back the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy pushed by House Republicans.

Democrats portrayed the final bill as a win after forcing out many of those proposals, which also included amendments targeting funding to cover medical treatment for transgender troops and Pentagon diversity and inclusion programs.

The abortion policy, which reimburses the costs for troops to travel to seek the procedure and other reproductive care, remains in place, but Republicans are sure to challenge it again in the coming year. The policy is opposed by most GOP lawmakers, though the Senate sidestepped the issue in its bill to maintain bipartisan support after House Republicans passed their bill nearly along party lines in July.

The abortion policy was also at the center of Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) 10-month-long blockade of military promotions, which the Alabama Republican finally lifted in December.

Senate and House Republicans, however, touted conservative wins with a pay cap and hiring freeze on defense employees dedicated to diversity and equity programs, a ban on unapproved flags such as the pride flag, requirements for the military services to review the characterization of discharges for troops dismissed for not getting the Covid vaccine and mandating the Pentagon to dispose of unused border wall materials.

The abortion concession displeased many conservatives, but the bill includes an even more controversial four-month extension of surveillance authorities designed to collect foreigners’ communication under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The final bill was opposed by many GOP hardliners in the House over the snooping powers add-on. Congressional leaders attached the provision to prevent the program, known as Section 702, from expiring at the end of the year. Lawmakers plan to debate an overhaul to the program early next year.

The agreement also bars the president from unilaterally withdrawing the U.S. from NATO, instead requiring a two-thirds vote from the Senate before any administration can leave the alliance. The measure also authorizes $300 million for the Pentagon to continue to arm Ukraine.

Overall, lawmakers matched Biden’s $886 billion request, but the legislation only authorizes funding and doesn’t actually allocate any money.

Congress must still enact a full fiscal 2024 appropriations bill when it returns early next year. The Pentagon is funded under a stopgap that runs through Feb. 2.

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