WASHINGTON– The Senate Thursday night passed a nearly $858 billion defense spending bill that provides pay raises for troops, sends billions to help Ukraine repel Russian forces and addresses the alarming rate of suicides in America’s armed forces.
It now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk for his expected signature.
The National Defense Authorization Act, which provides funding each year for Pentagon priorities such as training and equipment, passed the House last week. The $857.9 billion approved in funding lands at $45 billion over Biden’s initial budget request.
The legislation phases out a mandate in effect since August 2021 requiring service members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Democrats agreed to the change to gain bipartisan support for the legislation.
“Given the threats our country is facing around the world – whether it’s Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, the war on terror – the NDAA could not be more urgent or more important,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said before the Senate vote on the bill. “This legislation will make sure our military is resourced, trained and ready for action when called upon.”
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The defense bill passed in the House by a vote of 350-80 and 83-11 in the Senate.
Here’s what it includes:
Lowering service member suicide rates
The bill includes a provision that will require a review of suicide rates in the armed forces. It authorizes improvements to behavioral health care in the military, the expansion of an existing clinical psychology program and the establishment of new counseling programs.
It also requires the establishment of the Warfighter Brain Health Initiative, which aims to improve the brain health of servicemembers.
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The legislation requires the Pentagon to solve a shortfall of 1,000 uniformed and civilian behavioral health providers by utilizing telehealth services and the creation of internship programs where psychologists can finish their training at a military treatment facility in exchange for committing to service.
The focus on mental health follows a surge in suicide deaths, specifically in the army. The Pentagon’s latest annual report on suicide from 2020 found that for active-duty troops, the rate of suicide increased from 20.3 per 100,000 in 2015 to 28.7 per 100,000 in 2020.
A USA TODAY investigation found a suicide crisis in Alaska, where 17 soldiers died by confirmed or suspected suicide in 2021.
The defense bill targets those serving in Alaska by initiating a program to reimburse airfare for service members who are traveling back to their homes, establishing a car-sharing program at remote installations and providing “arctic pay” to compensate service members conducting cold weather operations.
Pay increase for military personnel
The spending bill authorizes a 4.6% pay raise for military service members and the Defense Department civilian workforce.
The Defense bill addresses other quality-of-life aspects, such as creation of a pilot program to reimburse service members for certain child care costs that relate to a permanent station change and expands financial reimbursement options for spouses.
It also targets affordable housing needs for service members by extending the authority to adjust the basic allowance for quality housing in high-cost areas.
Climate spending targets harmful chemicals, alternative fuels
The spending bill authorizes funding for the study of PFAS, or harmful chemicals, in drinking water and in firefighting gear.
It requires a detailed report on workforce climate surveys and a study on using alternative fuel for non-tactical fleet vehicles by the end of 2030.
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Before its passage, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced an amendment that targeted energy security. The amendment received the backing of Biden prior to a vote, but failed to pass in the Senate. Manchin said his permitting reform proposal would have cut energy bills and launched clean energy projects.
“We can fix the mistakes that we made, but you can’t do it if you don’t have the energy to provide the citizens of your country to have the opportunities to defend themselves and be able to help our allies around the world,” Manchin said before the Senate voted on his amendment. “We will not maintain super-power status.”
Support for Ukraine’s war against Russia
The Defense bill includes funds to support Ukraine and NATO.
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It extends the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative which authorizes $800 million in 2023 – an increase of $500 million compared to the initial request in Biden’s budget proposal.
The bill requires a report on security assistance plans to Ukraine and includes a provision that “expresses the sense of Congress that the United States’ commitment to NATO is ironclad,” emphasizing the importance of maintaining a unified response to the war in Ukraine.