Congress Sends Defense Bill to Trump

Congress Sends Defense Bill to Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate on Wednesday gave final congressional approval to a $716 billion defense policy bill that would raise military pay by 2.6 percent, the largest pay hike in nine years.

The 87-10 vote sends the bill to the White House for President Donald Trump's expected signature.

The compromise bill weakens a bid to clamp down on the Chinese telecom giant ZTE and allows the president to waive sanctions against countries that have bought Russian weapons but now want to buy U.S. military equipment.

The bill does not fund Trump's request for a new "Space Force" as an independent service branch but authorizes a military parade he wants in Washington in November. It also addresses sexual assault between the children of service members, including at schools the Pentagon runs on bases worldwide — a problem revealed this spring in an Associated Press investigation.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had urged Senate passage, saying the bill supports Trump's request for a pay raise for troops and "rebuilds the military to deter adversaries and maintain the administration's posture of peace through strength."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., voted against the defense bill because of the decision to strip out a provision halting the Trump administration's deal to save ZTE, which has close ties to the Chinese government.

"The threat posed by China and its telecommunications as such are so severe and significant that it regrettably brings me to the point where I cannot support a bill I have always supported in my time here," said Rubio, who has served in the Senate since 2011.

The compromise legislation, negotiated by House and Senate lawmakers, removes a provision reinstating penalties against ZTE and restricting the Chinese company's ability to buy U.S. component parts. ZTE was almost forced out of business after being accused of selling sensitive information to nations hostile to the U.S., namely Iran and North Korea, in violation of trade laws.

Trump warned in May that the ban was causing heavy job losses in China, and the Commerce Department reached a deal to lift the ban in June, allowing business with U.S. companies to resume.

The bill retains language blocking U.S. government purchases and contracts with ZTE.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sought the military equipment waiver, saying it would help countries such as India that are seeking to "pull away from the Russian orbit."

The waiver would not benefit Russia, Mattis said, but would benefit the U.S. and countries wishing to pursue a security relationship with the U.S., including Vietnam and Indonesia.

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the waiver undermines U.S. efforts to crack down on Russia in the wake of its interference in the 2016 elections. Menendez said he worried that the bill might hamper Congress' ability to block arms sale to countries that formerly did business with Russia.

The legislation includes several provisions to improve how the Defense Department handles reports of sexual assaults among the tens of thousands of children and teens who live and go to school on the bases where their parents serve. An Associated Press investigation documented broad failures of justice when military kids report incidents.

Among the changes, the bill creates new legal protections for students at Department of Defense Education Activity schools and requires the school system and the Pentagon to develop new policies for responding to reports on bases more generally. Schools and the armed services also must start tracking incidents — AP identified nearly 700 over 10 years, but that was a certain undercount.

The defense bill also drops several Republican proposals related to the environment, including one that would have barred the Fish and Wildlife Service from using the Endangered Species Act to protect two chicken-like birds in the Western half of the U.S. The House-approved language would have blocked endangered-species listing for the sage grouse and lesser-prairie chicken for 10 years.

The birds have become flashpoints in an ongoing battle over whether they warrant federal protection that hinders mining and other development.

The bill also drops an effort to loosen Cabinet control over the National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency responsible for securing the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile.

The bill is named after Arizona Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who is away from Congress battling brain cancer. McCain issued a statement after the vote saying he was proud of the bill and humbled that his colleagues named it after him.

"Serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee has been an incredibly meaningful experience since my first days on Capitol Hill," McCain said, calling his tenure as chairman "one of the greatest honors" in a 32-year Senate career.

The bill that bears his name "represents an important opportunity to implement an effective approach to confront a growing array of threats around the world" and "provide America's service members the resources and tools they need to succeed," McCain said.

The annual measure sets policies and a budget outline for the Pentagon, to be funded by a later appropriations bill that typically follows the policy measure fairly closely.

The provision on the military parade Trump is planning in November would block spending on certain vehicles, equipment and operational units if Mattis determines it would impede military readiness.