The Senate on Wednesday night cleared a key procedural hurdle to advance the annual defense policy bill.
The procedural vote on the measure passed by a wide bipartisan margin of 84-15.
This comes after congressional leaders struck a deal earlier Wednesday evening, agreeing to negotiate on the China competition bill, a key hurdle that was holding up the Senate from moving on to the $780 billion National Defense Authorization Act, which has passed for the last 60 years.
Senate Republicans had held up action on the defense bill, upset that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wanted to add to it an unrelated bill aimed at increasing US economic competition with China.
“After Senate Republicans made it clear they would block the inclusion of USICA on the NDAA, we have decided that the best way to get an agreement will be through the conference process,” Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a joint statement Wednesday night. “Therefore, the House and Senate will immediately begin a bipartisan process of reconciling the two chambers’ legislative proposals so that we can deliver a final piece of legislation to the President’s desk as soon as possible.”
Shortly after an initial procedural vote to begin debate on the defense bill was postponed so leaders could negotiate a path forward, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters that “nothing else is going to happen until that’s resolved.”
Inhofe opposes the China measure, known as the United States Innovation and Competition Act or USICA, although it was supported by 18 Republicans and 50 Democrats when it initially passed the Senate in June.
Inhofe was also angry about adding an unrelated provision to the defense bill, saying it creates a bad precedent.
Schumer, a leading sponsor of USICA, earlier Wednesday had defended his push to have it included in the defense bill, saying it would help address supply chain problems and increase US manufacturing of much-need semiconductor chips. He also wants to prod the House to pass USICA, something it hasn’t done because leaders there support a different approach, a rare standoff between the Democratic-controlled chambers.
“If we can pass the defense bill with USICA language included, I am hopeful that we will be able to work with the Speaker and our House colleagues to find a way to get this legislation enacted,” Schumer said on the floor this week.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota warned the issue may be more complicated because he said Schumer is making changes to the parts of the USICA bill that its GOP backers fought to get in it.
“If he strips out the trade and finance package, I mean you’ll bleed Republican support in a hurry,” Thune said. “I know there are hardcore members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who will vote ‘no’ on getting on a bill if it includes somethings he’s trying to include.”
The committee’s chairman, Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who works closely with Inhofe on the NDAA and other issues, had said the resolution is “ultimately going to be up to the leadership.”
The Senate is scheduled to be in recess next week for Thanksgiving and Schumer has said they will take that break if they pass NDAA this week or reach an agreement to have votes on amendments and final passage of the bill shortly after the holiday.
Senators are expected to vote on other notable amendments to the NDAA, including one to remove from the bill the authorization to draft women into front-line combat roles and one to repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization.
In a statement Wednesday, the Biden Administration said it “strongly supports enactment of a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for a 61st consecutive year and is grateful for the strong, bipartisan work this year by the Senate Armed Services Committee on behalf of America’s national defense.”
In the statement issued by the Office of Management and Budget, the administration added that it “looks forward to continuing to work with Congress to set an appropriate and responsible level of defense spending to support the security of the Nation,” while also “working with Congress to provide appropriate resources for non-security investments and security investments outside the Department of Defense.”
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Donald Judd contributed to this report.