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House Approves Family Leave, Space Force, in $738 Billion Defense Spending Bill

December 13, 2019 by Dan McCue
The Pentagon. (Photo via Pixabay)

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday approved a sweeping $738 billion defense policy bill that for the first time will provide paid family leave for all federal workers and fund the creation of a Space Force, a top priority of the White House.

The bill also provides for a 3.1 percent pay raise for military personnel, their largest raise in a decade.

The 377-48 vote in the Democratically-controlled House sends the conference report on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to the Republican-controlled Senate, which is expected to pass it by the end of next week.

This is the 59th consecutive year the Defense Authorization Act has passed in the House. President Donald Trump has said he will sign the bill as soon as the Senate acts.

The NDAA was the subject of months of intense negotiations between the House and Senate.

“This was not an easy process,” admitted House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., who was among those negotiating the 1,249 individual provisions contained in the 4,000-plus page document.

“We have a divided government. We have a Republican president, a Republican Senate and Democratic House who do not agree on a lot of issues, and those are the issues that tend to get focused on. But what this conference report reflects for the most part is that we do agree on a lot,” he said.

House Democrats had hoped to strike a deal forcing the Environmental Protection Agency to increase oversight of a class of chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances –commonly known as PFAS — that have been linked to cancer and other health issues across the country.

Senate Republicans resisted these measures, believing it would force the Defense Department and scores of private companies to undertake extensive cleanups.

Unable to reach a compromise on the issue, the House negotiators scrapped the provision and opted for a weaker one, requiring the Pentagon to phase out PFAS in firefighting foam by 2024, preventing more of these chemicals from contaminating the soil and water on military bases.

The new funding measure also bars the Pentagon from giving service members ready-to-eat meals packaged in containers treated with PFAS after 2021.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Wednesday he would introduce a separate bill next month that would incorporate the excluded measures.

“The federal agency tasked with protecting public health from dangerous chemicals like PFAS has failed to do its job under this Administration, and the Trump Administration’s PFAS ‘action plan’ is all talk, no action,” Hoyer said in a statement. “That is why Congress must be a source of action.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, of California, site of more than 300 drinking water wells contaminated with PFAS called on Congress to act on the issue before the holiday recess.

“Congress must pass legislation this year to protect communities from dangerous chemicals known as PFAS that have been found to contaminate drinking water near California military bases,” she said in a statement.

The breakthrough on a compromise bill came last week, after Senate Republicans agreed to accept Democratic demands to provide federal workers with 12 weeks of paid parental leave and repeal of the so-called widow’s tax on military death benefits.

Speaking of the paid family leave provision, Rep. Hoyer acknowledged there was a period of time when the leave proposal applied to only Defense Department employees.

“I am particularly pleased it now applies to all federal civilian employees,” he said. “The national security of our country is in interrelated ways dependent upon all of our [federal] employees, and we ought to treat them equally.”

Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., whose district is home to several military bases said the widow’s tax fix “will ensure surviving spouses can keep the full benefits they earned and not have to worry about financial hardship after suffering an unimaginable loss.”

He went on to say that the fix was possible thanks to the advocacy of people like Kathy Prout from Coronado, Calif., a Gold Star wife who was the first constituent to visit Peters in his Washington, D.C., office, “as well as advocates across the nation, who have been spent over a decade working with Congress to get this done.”

In previous sessions of Congress, the legislation has earned wide bipartisan support as well as support from key veterans advocacy groups, including the Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., Military Officers Association of America.

The Republicans also agreed to drop a Trump demand to budget $7.2 billion in defense funds for his border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, punting that debate to the deliberations over the  government-wide spending package.

Negotiators also endorsed Trump’s call for the establishment of the U.S. Space Force as the sixth Armed Service of the United States, under the Air Force — a provision previously backed by the House on a bipartisan basis.

Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., said the NDAA has a number of important provisions that may escape notice, such as a provision allowing service members to receive compensation in cases of medical malpractice and another that reforms privatized military housing, like those at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, to include a Military Family Tenant’s Bill of Rights.

“With passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress has secured major victories for those in uniform and their families,” Rep. Crist said. 

In a joint statement, Reps. Brendon Boyle, of Penn., Anthony Brown, of Md., Brad Schneider, of Ill., and Abigail Spanberger, of Va., co-chairs of the New Democrat Coalition National Security Task Force, said, “This NDAA builds a modern military ready to address challenges abroad and bolster our national security here at home.”

“By embracing new technology, training the next generation and honoring the sacred commitments we make to support our troops and their families, we create a safer future for all Americans,” they said.

“The promotion of American values and interests around the globe requires us to work closely with our allies and partners in advancing peace and countering forces of instability,” the co-chairs continued. “This legislation puts the New Democrat Coalition’s national security principles into action with historic investments in our military and alliances as well as support for our uniformed men and women and their families.”

The final bill did anger some Democrats, who were upset it failed to include House-passed provisions to restrict Trump from waging war against Iran unless Congress approves; ban deployment of new submarine-launched, low-yield nuclear weapons; and ban U.S. military assistance for strikes by Saudi-led forces in Yemen.

In response, Rep. Smith acknowledged that “certain Democratic priorities are not included in this legislation.”

“As Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, I fought for months with my Republican colleagues in the Senate to include provisions relating to Yemen, Iran, the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force, and the border wall,” he said. “I fought for these provisions until the final moments, however, Senate Republicans and the White House were completely unwilling to negotiate. Instead, they threatened to kill the bill. If we had allowed them to kill the bill, Democrats would have gotten nothing. Not a single one of our priorities.”

“And make no mistake about it,” Smith continued. “I will continue to fight for the provisions we did not get, hopefully at some point with a Senate and President who better reflect the values of our country. I know how important these provisions are.”

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