An $886 billion defense spending bill passed the Senate on Thursday evening, but it differed significantly from the version passed by the House earlier this month, setting up a possible confrontation over what Republicans say are “woke” military policies implemented by President Joe Biden.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney applauded several provisions in the bill that he said would help his state, including $96.2 million for projects at Hill Air Force Base and changes that would improve passport services for those living in the Mountain West.

The bill passed the Senate 86-11, with broad support among senators from both parties. Romney voted in favor of the bill, while Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, voted against the final version.

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In a statement to the Deseret News, Lee said while he was encouraged the Senate adopted an amendment he proposed “aimed at protecting the legal rights of our service members abroad,” he voted against the bill because he believes it “fails to prioritize U.S. interests.”

“This year’s bill massively cuts the end-strength for all service branches except the Space Force and Army, a gimmick to compensate for the (Department of Defense’s) inability to meet recruiting goals,” he said. “Further, the bill adds additional funding to U.S. proxy efforts in Ukraine without imposing any consequences on NATO allies who consistently fail to spend 2% of (gross domestic product) on defense. Finally, the bill does not appropriately prioritize deterrence in the Indo-Pacific at the level required to deny the growing likelihood of military conflict with China. For these reasons, I felt it was in the best interest of our national security to vote against this year’s NDAA.”

Like the House bill, the Senate bill included a 5.2% pay increase for service members, assistance for Ukraine and measures to counter China’s rising military strength.

Romney said the country faces “growing threats from adversaries,” and so the military should have the “resources, equipment and capabilities it needs to keep our nation safe.”

This year’s Senate (National Defense Authorization Act) includes several provisions which I fought for to protect against these growing threats by modernizing our nuclear triad, fully understanding the extent of China’s defense-industrial complex, and bolstering our domestic critical mineral capabilities to reduce our dependence on adversaries like China and Russia,” Romney said.

How are the Senate and House bills different?

But the Senate and House bills differ in significant ways, with the House bill including limits on military spending on travel for abortion, gender transition surgery and the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion offices.

After the bill cleared the Senate on Thursday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the “House ought to look to the bipartisan Senate as to how to get things done instead of just throwing out partisan bills that have no chance of passing.”

But Republican lawmakers, including members of Utah’s congressional delegation, say these policies distract the military from its primary purpose.

“The (Department of Defense) must focus on the real conflicts and wars America faces against its adversaries and not the culture wars often perpetrated from the Biden administration,” Utah Republican Rep. Blake Moore said in a statement to the Deseret News after the House passed the bill. 

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The Senate bill did include a provision that would prohibit the defense department from requiring employees to list their preferred pronouns on correspondence, and it imposes salary caps and a hiring freeze on DEI positions, according to The New York Times.

Because of differences between the two bills, lawmakers from the House and Senate will meet to negotiate over what to include. The final bill will need to be approved in both chambers before heading to the president’s desk.

Utah’s role in national defense

Romney said the Senate bill contains language from measures he’s supported in recent years, including those that would “bolster Utah’s role in our national defense.”

Those measures include:

  • Requiring the State Department to come up with a strategy to reduce wait-times for passports, especially in parts of the country where there is not a passport office within five hours — which includes Salt Lake City.
  • $96.2 million for new military construction projects at Hill Air Force Base, and $4.9 billion for 48 new F-35s.
  • Removal of a “bureaucratic roadblock” preventing funding for military construction projects like the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, language that is supported by the entire Utah congressional delegation.
  • Spending to advance the country’s nuclear deterrence capabilities.
  • Authorization for the Treasury Department to use sanctions and anti-money laundering tools against fentanyl traffickers.
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The bill also included a measure proposed by Romney that works to “achieve critical mineral supply chain independence from China, Russia and other geostrategic competitors and adversaries,” and another to require the Defense Intelligence Agency to produce a report on “the true extent of China’s defense-industrial build up.”

Also, in the midst of a military recruitment crisis, the bill includes a version of Romney’s Military Service Promotion Act of 2023, which would give military recruiters greater access to high schools and colleges.

Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho said the bill also includes an amendment that would expand an existing program that provides payments to people exposed to radiation because of atomic weapons tests or while working in uranium mines.  

“Far too many innocent victims have been lost to cancer-related deaths from Cold War era above-ground weapons testing,” Crapo said in a press release.