WASHINGTON -- The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday providing billions of dollars for national defense efforts, and Arkansas' legislators were among the members who voted in favor of the legislation.
The House approved the annual National Defense Authorization Act in a 350-80 vote. The Senate will next take up the measure as lawmakers prepare to wrap up legislative business before the new Congress begins work in January.
The $858 billion legislation authorizes funds for a 4.6% pay increase for service members and additional money for basic allowance and housing. Lawmakers approved $800 million in military assistance for Ukraine as well as language requiring oversight into funding to the country.
The legislation additionally removes the requirement that service members must receive a coronavirus vaccination following a push from some Republicans. More than 8,000 active-duty troops were discharged after refusing to get vaccinated.
"I think a lot of people ran to it this time because of the covid vaccine mandate issue that was addressed," Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican from Rogers, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"Good for them for getting that in the bill so it attracted more support, but there's not anything more noble and more important than to demonstrate Congress' collective support of the men and women who defend us."
Womack, who serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, wants Congress to pass fiscal matters before the federal government begins its fiscal year every October. He said Thursday that "politics gets in the way" of lawmakers passing budgets and similar legislation.
"I am chagrined by the fact it took us so long to get here," Womack said. "We have to get this stuff done in a more timely fashion."
His comments came as Congress does not yet have legislative text for avoiding a government shutdown. Lawmakers must pass legislation to avoid a government shutdown after next Friday.
"I look at this thing totally based on what we need to do from a defense perspective on known and perceived threats and what it's going to take for us to execute our national security mission consistent with the defense strategy," he said. "I prefer us to look narrowly through that prism and deal with it, and deal with it in such a way that we don't leave our troops in the field hanging, not knowing what the future is going to look like."
Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Hot Springs, has been watching lawmakers' work on the National Defense Authorization Act with recognition of the legislation's impact on his district. The 4th Congressional District includes East Camden, the location of the Highland Industrial Park and the operations of Lockheed Martin Corp. and other defense manufacturers.
"If you don't have an NDAA and the appropriations to go with it, then the military can't develop new systems," he said. "As we're in a race with China right now with different types of military equipment, it's important that we get these bills passed."
Westerman continued, "It's very important to our national defense, and it's very important economically to the region."
Rep. Rick Crawford, a Jonesboro Republican, noted the language regarding a review of Ukraine spending as a reason for his support. He said he frequently hears constituents' concerns about the United States' financial commitment to Ukraine amid Russia's invasion of that country.
"I want to see a higher degree of accountability and transparency with regard to where that money's going," he told the Democrat-Gazette.
The National Defense Authorization Act also includes language requiring the federal government to develop a plan directed at disrupting narcotics production linked to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The effort will specifically address the trafficking of Captagon, an addictive synthetic drug listed as a controlled substance in the United States.
Rep. French Hill, a Little Rock Republican, introduced the original legislation against Captagon last year. The House passed the bill in September, but the Senate has not considered the matter.
"I am proud of this accomplishment and will continue to work tirelessly to prevent the Assad regime from furthering their influence and the international prevalence of Captagon," Hill said in a release following the vote.
The bill also includes language related to multiple projects impacting the waterways of Arkansas and surrounding states.
Lawmakers did not include Sen. Joe Manchin's, D-W.Va., measure on energy permitting projects and the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline. Manchin proposed the permitting plan as part of an agreement with Senate leaders that included the Inflation Reduction Act.