(Adds China Defense Ministry comment)
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON Dec 8 The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly
passed a compromise version of an annual defense policy bill on
Thursday without controversial provisions such as requiring
women to register for the draft or allowing contractors to make
religion-based hiring decisions.
Ninety-two senators backed the $618.7 billion National
Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, and seven opposed it.
Because it passed the House of Representatives by a similarly
large margin last week, the bill now goes to the White House for
President Barack Obama to veto or sign into law.
A White House spokesman told a briefing he did not yet have
a position on the bill to report.
The 2016 bill, the last of Obama's presidency, includes some
Republican-backed initiatives with which he has disagreed in the
past. It includes a $3.2 billion increase in military spending,
when there has been no similar increase in non-defense funding.
The bill also bars closures of military bases, although top
Pentagon officials say they have too much capacity, and it
blocks planned reductions in active-duty troop numbers.
And it continues policies that bar transfers of prisoners to
U.S. soil from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,
which Obama had hoped to close. While his administration has
shipped most inmates from the controversial prison, the Democrat
is not expected to accomplish his goal of shuttering it before
he leaves office Jan. 20.
Obama's successor, Republican Donald Trump, wants to keep
Guantanamo open, and expand it.
The NDAA passed both chambers in the Republican-led Congress
with margins large enough to overcome a veto, and the compromise
legislation features many provisions such as a military pay
raise and an expansion of a landmark human rights bill, that are
extremely popular in Congress.
After months of negotiation, the Senate and House Armed
Services committees unveiled a compromise version of the NDAA
last month that left out the Russell Amendment, a "religious
freedom" measure Democrats said would have let federal
contractors discriminate against workers on the basis of gender
or sexual orientation, overturning Obama's executive order.
Some House Republicans said they hoped to revisit that
provision after Trump takes office, when they do not have to
worry about a veto threat from a Democratic White House.
The bill also excluded a provision that would have required
women to register for the military draft, now that Pentagon
leaders are moving to allow them into combat.
A provision recommending that the U.S. conducts yearly
high-level military exchanges with Taiwan, which Beijing sees as
a breakaway province, made it into the final bill.
China's defense ministry said in a statement on its official
microblog on Friday that it was "firmly opposed" to the move,
which would "inevitably damage U.S. interests".
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by
Timothy Gardner, and Christian Shepherd and Michael Martina in
BEIJING; Editing by Richard Chang and Clarence Fernandez)