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Sen. King optimistic about eventual outcome of defense bill despite partisan amendments

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, speaks during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to examine the nomination of Army Lt. Gen. Randy George to be reappointment to the grade of general and to be Chief of Staff of the Army, Wednesday, July 12, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Mariam Zuhaib
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, speaks during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to examine the nomination of Army Lt. Gen. Randy George to be reappointment to the grade of general and to be Chief of Staff of the Army, Wednesday, July 12, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Maine Sen. Angus King said he is optimistic that the House and Senate will reach a compromise on a defense spending bill despite several controversial amendments from House Republicans.

The National Defense Authorization Act typically enjoys strong, bipartisan support in Congress because it sets spending levels for all things military. For instance, both the House and Senate versions of the bill contain funding authorizations important to Bath Iron Works, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and other defense contractors or installations in Maine. Military personnel also stand to receive a 5% pay increase as part of the nearly $900 billion bill, known as the NDAA.

But the bill received a largely party-line vote in the House last week after Republicans added language to prevent the Pentagon from covering transportation costs for personnel seeking an abortion. Republicans also want to end coverage for surgeries and hormone therapies for transgender service members and to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion offices in the Defense Department.

Those amendments have already been rejected by Senate Democrats. And King, an independent on the Senate Armed Services Committee that crafts the NDAA, said Republican members in that committee proposed many of the same amendments on so-called “culture war” issues. They were rejected and the bill still passed out of committee with a near-unanimous, bipartisan vote.

"They didn't get the votes but they voted for the bill,” King said. “They voted the bill out of committee and I think that's important because they are basically saying, 'Ok, we have our views on this issue but national security is more important.' And I'm hoping that view will prevail in the House as well."

The Democratic-controlled Senate could vote on its version of the nearly $900 billion bill as early as this week. House and Senate negotiators will then have to work a compromise by the end of the fiscal year.

The Senate version of the bill would authorize two additional Arleigh Burke-class destroyers that are built at Bath Iron Works and Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi, continuing a multi-year procurement plan for the Navy that passed Congress last year. The two shipyard would compete for those contracts. The bill also supports advance procurement of a third destroyer next year and divides development work on the next-generation destroyer between the Maine and Mississippi shipyards.

In an interview on Monday, King also pointed out that Senate version of the bill would authorize $60 million to construct a parking garage at BIW. Parking has long been an issue both for BIW employees and local residents. Last year, the city imposed a one-hour limit for non-residential parking along some streets near BIW to discourage workers from parking there.

"People come from all over Maine to work at BIW and parking is a big issue,” King said. “So this is basically an investment in the infrastructure that I think is going to be important to maintaining workers and attracting workers."

Maine’s two House members split on the version that passed the chamber last week on a largely party-line vote of 219 to 210.

Democratic Rep. Jared Golden of the 2nd District was one of just four Democrats to support the bill after Republicans added the amendments dealing with abortion, transgender service members and diversity. 1st District Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree opposed it.

Golden voted against most of the Republican amendments on social issues. He voted with Republicans to prohibit the Defense Department from spending money to promote the idea that the country or the U.S. Constitution are “inherently racist” and to prohibit the department from requiring employees to complete training in race-based concepts as a prerequisite for hiring, promotion or retention.

A Marine Corps veteran who worked on the NDAA as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, Golden said in an interview Monday evening that he found Republican fears around many of these social issues “puzzling and somewhat misplaced.”

“This is not the stuff that service members are spending their time thinking about and worrying about as they go about the business and the duty of serving their country,” Golden said. He supports abortion rights and voted in 2019 to overturn the Trump administration’s ban on transgender service members. He was also frustrated with House Republicans’ decision to slash U.S. defense support for Ukraine. But at the end of the day, Golden said his objections to the GOP amendments were not enough for him to vote against the overall defense bill, especially knowing that these issues will come up during the House-Senate negotiations.

“You have a look at the whole,” Golden said. “It’s a big bill and it sets national policy on a very wide scale and it’s a big responsibility. There is a lot in there for the nation that I think is critically important to the future of our military services and what kind of investment in those services. There’s a big investment in our service members themselves: where they live, what kind of housing they live in, what they get paid.”

Updated: July 18, 2023 at 10:53 AM EDT
This post has been updated with perspective from Congressman Jared Golden.