Congress reviews sweeping bipartisan defense funding bill with major shifts in policy

A massive U.S. defense-related bill was rolled out Tuesday and is making its way through Congress. Bipartisan negotiators released the 4,000 plan to fund the annual National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which sets parameters for the military. This year it also includes major policy changes. Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A massive U.S.-defense related bill rolled out late last night, is making its way now through Congress.

    The annual National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, is a 4,000-page bill put together by bipartisan negotiators. It sets parameters for the military. And, this year, it includes major policy changes.

    Our Lisa Desjardins is on Capitol Hill, as she so often is, with more.

    So, hello, Lisa.

    First of all, what's in this bill? You have read the whole thing, I know.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is a sweeping piece of legislation. I have definitely not read all 4,000 pages, and there's an 800-page accompanying report.

    But overall, Judy, it's an increase potentially in the strength and power and funding of the U.S. military. A 4.6 percent pay raise for most members of the military would be in this. And it also includes things like more support for Ukraine, also more support for Taiwan.

    This bill includes a great deal of important policy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So let's talk about some of the specifics, and starting with how it would change the military justice system.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is historic. And this is something that we have discussed on this show for years.

    This bill — and let's look at exactly kind of what we're talking about here when we're talking about the military justice system. Right now, in general, commanders are the ones who oversee whether or not those who serve under them would be prosecuted, how they would be prosecuted, if there are court-martials.

    This bill would change that, so that 14 crimes — these are serious crimes — would be independently handled, taken out of the chain of command. Those crimes include things like murder, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, which would be included in this over the course of two years.

    This is something that some senators, in particular, have been working on, one of them Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. She spoke about why this is so important to her today.

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY):

    Having independent prosecutors take these cases of sexual assault, sexual harassment, murder, and other types of violent felonies will allow for a serious look at these crimes when they get — when they are committed, so that there can be a chance of conviction.

    The conviction rate is extremely low right now. And so few cases actually go to trial, go to court-martial.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In addition to the conviction rate being low in the military for crimes, also, we know there is a low rate of reporting things like sexual assault.

    Gillibrand and others hope that this changes. And, Judy, this has been a very sensitive topic. It's something she worked on behind the scenes all year to get in this bill now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, we know another part of the bill, of the many, that is getting a lot of attention today, and that has to do with COVID vaccinations for members of the military.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    Let's look at what the policy is right now in the U.S. military and what is changing in this bill. Currently, members of the military have — are mandated to take the — to be fully vaccinated. That began in 2021. This bill under a compromise reached something, Republicans pushed for — I'm sorry — there are some 8,000 people have been discharged from the military from all branches for refusing to be fully vaccinated.

    This bill would change that, end that mandate within 30 days of this bill becoming law. And it would, however, not reinstate those who have already been discharged. This is obviously a subject that crosses cultural and public health debates. But it is something that some Republicans pushed for hard, especially raising those cases of the 8,000 service members who have been discharged for refusing to be fully vaccinated.

    It is something Democrats did not want to give up. And, in fact, we heard from the Pentagon today they think this is a mistake. They think that this could affect the readiness of some of the troops. But it is something that Democrats ultimately were willing to put on the table and put in this bill because they wanted the rest of the policies inside of it.

    I will also say that the Department of Defense has said today that 99 percent of the military right now has had at least one COVID shot. We will see, going forward, without this mandate, how that is affected.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, we know a fair amount of compromise had to have already gone into this bill before it was going to hit the floor.

    But you're telling us that, tonight, there seems to be a snag. What is going on?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, there are so many cross-plotlines in this end of season for Congress right now.

    As we speak, congressional Democrats are not just thinking about the fact that they will no longer control the House. But, as that disappears, they will not be able to really pass legislation of significance probably for the next two years. So, they are looking for any must-pass legislation to get any of their last bills out.

    This defense authorization bill could be the last major bill to pass in Congress. What's happened tonight is, the Congressional Black Caucus is meeting. Their votes are needed for this defense authorization bill. They are thinking of withholding those votes in order to get a prominent voting rights bill attached to this defense bill.

    I know it sounds like it doesn't make sense, but this could be one of the last trains out of Congress this year. I think it is a longshot for them to attach that bill, but they are hoping to get some kind of voting rights legislation attached, because they are concerned this could be one of, if not the last major bills to leave Congress.

    So we will keep you up to date on that. That vote on this defense authorization bill was supposed to happen right now. But it's waiting on the Congressional Black Caucus to see if they will get on board or if they will need some kind of other — others of their demands met in order to get on board this bill.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we know that's been a big priority for Democrats going back to early last year.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So — but it's so interesting to watch all this.

    Lisa Desjardins, not going to get much sleep tonight.

    Thank you, Lisa.

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