House approves bipartisan Middle East policy amendments in NDAA markup

The amendments, covering issues from military exercises with Israel to reporting on Iranian nuclear capabilities, were advanced without controversy

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Reps. Jim Banks (R-IN), right, and Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), attend the House Armed Services Committee hearing titled "U.S. Military Posture and National Security Challenges in the Indo-Pacific Region," in Rayburn Building on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.

At Wednesday’s marathon House Armed Services Committee markup of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, the committee advanced numerous Middle East policy-related amendments to the NDAA along bipartisan lines.

The amendments were approved without controversy as part of larger en bloc amendment packages, which are negotiated by both parties before their introduction. The bill itself was approved just after midnight by a near-unanimous committee vote, with only Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) voting in opposition, as he has several times previously.

An amendment by Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) would require the military to conduct biannual exercises with Israel, including simulating large-scale and long-range strike missions and aerial refueling of Israeli aircraft by the U.S.

“It is more important than ever for Congress and the Armed Services Committee to stand with Israel, and I am proud to help defend the only democracy in the Middle East from the hostile and murderous Iranian regime,” Banks said in a statement. “My amendment ensures that America works with Israel so that we both are ready to protect ourselves and the world from the scourge of a nuclear Iran.”  

An amendment by Rep. Mike Waltz (R-FL) incorporated a long-gestating program creating a grant program to fund U.S.-Israel collaboration on post traumatic stress disorder research into the NDAA. Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX) led an amendment requiring the Defense Department to create a plan to enable Israel to gain observer status in the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program — a U.S.-based multinational flight training program for NATO combat pilots.

A series of amendments, passed in en bloc packages, would require briefings and reports to Congress by the Department of Defense on a range of issues.

They would require the defense officials to brief Congress on cooperation among Saudi Arabia, China and the United Arab Emirates; provide a review of “efforts to increase Israel’s participation in multinational organizations and military task forces”; report to Congress on how Iranian-Chinese technology-sharing has assisted Iran’s missile programs; brief Congress on Iranian efforts to harden its nuclear facilities, the U.S. and its partners’ abilities to strike these facilities and nuclear cooperation between Iran and Russia; and report to Congress on the national security implications of Middle East partners deploying 5G communications networks — a trend which has raised concerns about the security of U.S. military technology from Chinese spying. 

Another approved amendment would expand existing Defense Department reports to Congress on Iranian military capabilities to include unconventional and paramilitary forces, Iranian space launch capabilities, Iranian drone forces and Iranian collaboration with its regional proxies and with China.

An amendment by Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-CA) would require the department to report to Congress on former military officers who are employed by foreign governments, and regulations surrounding such employment. The amendment cites Washington Post reporting that highlighted Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states’ employment of former officers in military-related roles.

Some expected amendments on Middle East policy failed to materialize during the markup. One would have incorporated the MARITIME Act, advancing Middle East naval cooperation, into the NDAA; it is now likely to be introduced when the NDAA comes to the House floor, according to a spokesperson for Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE). Another would have expedited training for Israeli forces on the KC-46 refueling aircraft and positioned a U.S.-owned KC-46 in Israel. 

The base House NDAA bill already included some priority provisions for pro-Israel advocates, such as $50 million for a new fund supporting U.S.-Israel cooperation in advanced defense technologies and a report on the status of U.S. stockpiles of precision-guided munitions in Israel. 

The bill approved by the House Armed Services Committee will be subject to further changes during the amendment process on the House floor as well as during the conference process with the Senate, which began marking up its own version of the NDAA behind closed doors on Wednesday. The amendments approved during Wednesday’s meeting may not ultimately be incorporated into the final bill.

An amendment by Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), also approved in an en bloc package, would bar the Defense Department from communicating with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation or taking any action in response to concerns from the group without authorization from the secretary of defense. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is a watchdog group founded by a Jewish military veteran to oppose alleged religious intimidation in the military. 

The committee spent significant time on Wednesday debating amendments relating to counter-extremism, diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory programs within the Defense Department. It ultimately approved amendments eliminating the department’s chief diversity officer, defunding the Pentagon’s extremism working group, capping pay for individuals involved in DEI work and cutting off funding for any training related to CRT. 

The committee rejected amendments that would have eliminated the department’s inspector general for DEI and extremism and cut off funding for DEI training. Bacon and Turner voted with Democrats to block those two amendments. Turner also voted with Democrats against eliminating the Pentagon’s chief diversity officer.

Democratic lawmakers and the Anti-Defamation League have warned that moves to cut diversity and extremism programming risk allowing dangerous extremist elements to recruit support within the armed forces, and deprive service members from minority groups of support systems. 

Republicans describe the programs as divisive and allege that they are unneeded, undermine readiness and constitute an attempt to ideologically indoctrinate troops.

The committee did approve, in en bloc packages, an amendment requesting a report on the DoD’s progress updating security clearing procedures to identify extremists and an amendment that would require a report on the status of the department’s extremism training program and its future plans for such training. The amendments’ sponsors framed them as part of efforts to combat antisemitism in the military.

In the same en bloc package, the committee approved an amendment requesting a report on the Department of Defense’s implementation of religious freedom education programming.

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