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Senate approves $602 billion defense policy bill

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., summed up the NDAA vote saying, "I'd like to criticize the 13 who voted against." (AP Photo)

The Senate Tuesday passed its version of the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, setting up a conference process between the House and Senate to merge the two dissimilar bills.

The Senate passed the bill by a 85-13 vote. Notable "nays" include Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Texas, and Ben Sasse, Nebraska.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., summed up the vote saying, "I'd like to criticize the 13 who voted against."

The bill contains major changes to the military's organizational structure, splits the undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics into two jobs and requires women ages 18-26 to register for the draft. In addition, a key amendment will safeguard the U.S. use of Russian space rockets.

This version of the NDAA would update Goldwater Nichols, a 30-year-old law governing military command structure, to give the Joint Chiefs chairman more responsibility with coordinating and planning for troop movement while still impartially advising the president and defense secretary. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said he thinks "improvements can be made with respect to the changes in the context of the Goldwater Nichols reorganization" at conference with the House.

The Senate's proposal to split the undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics would create two jobs: one focusing solely on bringing more innovation to the Pentagon and the other solely focused on business. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has criticized this move, calling on lawmakers to "remember the Joint Strike Fighter's growing pains."

A provision to make women age 18-26 to register for the draft has come under intense debate. Heritage Action went as far as to urge the Senate to not vote passage of the whole defense policy bill over concerns on "differences between men and women that are relevant to accomplishing the military mission."

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., praised the amendment to continue using Russian-made RD-180 rockets for satellite launches, calling it a "significant victory for national security." The amendment funds procurement of 18 RD-180 through 2022 for United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rockets.

"While we can all agree that the U.S. should not be dependent upon any foreign power ... it would have been far too dangerous to hastily restrict the use of the RD-180 before an American-made rocket engine is developed," he said. The RD-180 extension gives U.S. rocket makers time to properly develop a home-made replacement.

McCain objects to the RD-180 procurement, saying the U.S. is giving money to Russian President Vladimir Putin's "corrupt cronies." Reed called the amendment a "workable compromise."

The Senate also elected to keep the exact cost of the B-21 stealth bomber secret.

Passage of the Senate NDAA comes as President Obama threatens to veto both the Senate and House versions of the bill. His main objections include a personnel limit to the National Security Council, and prohibition on closing Guantanamo Bay, a major campaign promise.

In closing remarks, both McCain and Reed scolded the Senate for not voting on several amendments. McCain said, "Not every Senator can have his or her way. ... I blame a few senators who believe it's their way or the highway."

A non-vote on Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's amendment to allow asylum for Afghan interpreters was at the center of McCain's and Reed's comments. Reed stressed that interpreters won't come to the United States' aid if they fear being targeted by the Taliban and Islamic State.