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Defense bill includes new $3.2B spending limit for Soo Lock project

Washington — The defense policy bill approved Thursday by the House includes new spending authorization for the ongoing project to build a new Soo Lock at $3.2 billion, which is triple what it had been expected to cost but should allow construction to stay on track.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had requested the reauthorization this fall, citing record levels of inflation, a “robust” construction workload across the country and a national labor shortage as contributing to the cost increase, as well as modifications to the design to improve safety and operability.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Lansing Democrat who has long supported the project, said Thursday the reauthorization language is "really good news."

"This allows the project to get done," Stabenow told The Detroit News. "The most important thing is that there's a full commitment from the Congress, from the Army Corps of Engineers, from the administration. So it's not going to be stop-start, which has been of concern to me."

Roughly $1.585 billion has already been allocated to the project, which would modernize the shipping lock complex on the St. Mary's River in the Upper Peninsula connecting Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes. The government has stressed the critical role the shipping channel plays in the North American economy and the nation's supply chain of iron ore for manufacturing.

Stabenow added that she's working with the House and Senate appropriations panels to ensure funding for the project is included in the omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2023.

"We’re working with the House to make sure they have the dollars for this coming year," Stabenow said. "The great news is the authorization has been increased, and the commitment to get this done is very, very clear."

The Soo Locks reauthorization is part of a 4,000-page legislative package that includes the annual National Defense Authorization Act, as well as text of the annual water infrastructure legislation.

The water infrastructure legislation also authorizes the Army Corps to work with partners in Southeast Michigan and Midland County to address flood risks caused by extreme rainfall, Stabenow's office said.

The House voted 350-80 to approve the bill Thursday, with Senate expected to take up the package next week. Two Michigan lawmakers voted no — Democratic U.S. Reps. Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township and Rashida Tlaib of Detroit.

What else is in bill

The bill authorizes $858 billion in defense spending overall, which is about $45 billion more than President Joe Biden requested. It also would rescind the military's COVID-19 vaccine mandate and includes an overhaul of sexual assault, harassment and other military justice cases long pushed for by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York.

The package also provides $1.2 billion for cleaning up military sites contaminated by toxic PFAS chemicals, $11 million for PFAS-related research and direction for the Pentagon to phase out purchases of personal protective firefighting equipment containing PFAS, among other provisions related to the chemical linked to well water contamination.

"This year’s NDAA provides major wins for our nation and service members including a 4.6% pay raise," Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, said in a statement.

"While no legislation is perfect, major concerns for our national security and troops were addressed in this year’s NDAA, including rescinding the COVID vaccine mandate, rejecting Biden’s plans to cut the fleet size of the U.S. Navy and hardening our defense against Chinese aggression.”

Republican lawmakers especially applauded the inclusion of a repeal of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for U.S. troops that they'd long criticized, noting that personnel removed over the vaccine requirement may be reinstated.

"We got a huge win on getting rid of the vaccine mandate," U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township, said on Fox Business News.

"We also more importantly got language in there that will require us to get data on any service member that was adversely affected because of the vaccine mandate. We don't know if that is 2,000 people, 5,000 people. So, next Congress when we actually have the gavel, we can double down and make sure we take care of those service members."

The White House panned the repeal provision, with Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying "it is a mistake."

"We think what happened here is Republicans in Congress have decided that they’d rather fight against the health and wellbeing of our troops than protecting them," she said Wednesday.

Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, had been lobbying for the inclusion of a provision to repeal outdated authorizations for the use of military force including an Eisenhower-era one dating to 1957, but it was stripped out. The package also excluded House language to repeal the 2002 and 1991 AUMFs against Iraq that remain on the books but are not currently relied on by the Pentagon. 

"There is zero excuse to keep these zombie AUMFs around for a president to abuse," Meijer tweeted.

War ships and ice cutters

Sen. Gary Peters' office said he secured authorizations in the bill for $16 million for a National Guard armory at Camp Grayling, $24 million for new supply and storage facilities for the Marine Corps Reserve Unit in Battle Creek and $1.6 million to complete the construction of maintenance facilities at the Army Reserve Center in Southfield.

Peters also added provisions in the bill to authorize additional funding for the operation of the U.S. Coast Guard Great Lakes Center of Expertise for Oil Spill Preparedness and Response and to allow the Coast Guard to acquire data to improve oil spill preparedness. There is authorization for funding to acquire an additional Great Lakes icebreaker and tackle a backlog of Coast Guard infrastructure projects in the Great Lakes.

Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, also helped get in a provision to reauthorize $360 million for a security grant program that helps religious institutions and nonprofits strengthen their security in the face of rising threats and attacks.

The bill included an amendment co-sponsored by Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, requiring a report on the humanitarian situation in Lebanon, including food security impacts due to wheat imports affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The package incorporated 34 amendments that were led by Democratic U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Lansing, her office said, including her bill to limit Russia's access to its gold reserves in an effort to restrict funding for its war in Ukraine.

Slotkin's other provisions included instructing the Pentagon to offer service members alternative gear that is free of PFAS; allocating $10 million to develop Michigan-based production of aircraft engines for small unmanned aerial systems; and requiring the National Defense Stockpile to gather enough rare earth elements and critical minerals to sustain three years of major conflict, her office said.

"My provisions address issues like PFAS exposure by offering new equipment alternatives, retaining pilots at installations like Selfridge Air National Guard Base, and pushing the Pentagon to report to Congress as they finally wind down the use of toxic burn pits," Slotkin said.

The bill text also addresses the troubled class of warships that includes the USS Detroit. As part of its budget proposal this year, the Navy had proposed saving money by retiring nine total littoral combat ships, including the USS Detroit that was just commissioned in 2016.

The legislation would allow the Navy to retire no more than four Freedom-class littoral combat ships, blocking the decommissioning of five others. But the text does not identify by name which ships must be retained or retired — something that the Navy would determine.

That doesn't mean the ships to be retired would be headed for the scrap heap, however. The bill says any littoral combat ships to be retired should first be evaluated "for potential transfer" to the military forces of allied nations.

Critics say the ships are unreliable and don't offer the relevant capabilities the U.S. needs to counter China or Russia, though the Navy continues to build more LCSs.

The water portion of the bill would increase the federal cost share for a project aimed at preventing the invasive Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, taking it from 80% to 90%. That could help speed up completion of the project at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Illinois.

The bill also boosts Michigan’s statewide Environmental Infrastructure Assistance Program authority from $35 million to $85 million and makes the program newly able to support local partners with technical, planning or design assistance stormwater and drinking water projects, in addition to sewer overflow projects, according to Stabenow's office. 

It also authorizes $7.2 million for Cascade Charter Township and $40 million for Macomb County for wastewater infrastructure improvements.