By Kristina Wong and Martin Matishak
House lawmakers on Monday released a $521 billion blueprint for the 2015 defense budget that rejects most of the Pentagon’s cost-saving proposals.
The top line figure is identical to the Pentagon’s, but the legislation from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) would replace the Defense Department’s requested cuts with different reductions.
For instance, the bill rejected the Pentagon’s plans to slow the growth of military pay and benefits; retire an aircraft carrier and the U-2 spy plane fleet; and launch another round of base closures.
Instead, it calls for other cuts, including about $1.4 billion in the Pentagon’s training, repairs and operations and maintenance budgets.
The bill implicitly acknowledges it would lead to higher spending after 2015, when additional spending cuts under sequestration are to be implemented, but proposes no curbs on that spending, and instead asks the president to find new savings within the Pentagon budget.
“The chairman isn’t going to make up the shortfall this year,” said a House aide on background.
McKeon put the bill together using submissions from his subcommittees, and the bill is likely to have support from members of both parties on the panel.
But Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member, criticized the bill for punting difficult decisions that would save billions down the line under the sequester, which imposed $1 trillion in cuts to the Pentagon over the next decade.
“This year, we had two options: we could have stepped up and made the difficult choices in regard to retiring aging weapons systems and platforms, authorized a BRAC, or made changes to military compensation and benefits or ended sequestration. We decided to do neither,” Smith said.
“If we continue along this path, and sequestration remains the law of the land, our military readiness will be significantly degraded.
In today’s world, that is unacceptable and it is wholly avoidable, which is why I support ending sequestration immediately.”
Smith urged lawmakers to stand up to “parochial” interests in their states.
“As we mark up the bill this week, I urge all members of the Armed Services Committee to present and evaluate proposals based on their national security merits, not their parochial pull,” he said.
The defense bill does include one notable concession to Pentagon budget cutters, though even that was a bit of a hedge.
The bill would allow for the retirement of the Air Force’s A-10 “Warthog” plane — beloved by ground troops and supported by a number of top figures on Capitol Hill, but only if they are stored in a way that would allow them to be quickly returned to the force if the budget situation improves.
In another potential compromise, while the bill opposes reducing a pay raise for troops from 1.8 percent to 1 percent, it maintains a proposed pay freeze for general and flag officers in the coming fiscal years.
Also, the committee rejected only half of the Pentagon’s proposed cuts of $200 million to military base grocery stores, known as commissaries, allowing for a subsidy cut of $100 million.
The budget highlights how the panel’s lawmakers are working to keep the Pentagon funded, despite the threat of the sequester.
Lawmakers still hope to turn off those sequester cuts in the near future.
The full committee will meet on Wednesday to amend the bill, with work beginning in the morning and likely stretching into Thursday as lawmakers debate its more controversial aspects.
One of those fights is the force structure mix between the Army active duty and its reserve forces, as well as a controversial plan to shift the National Guard’s Apache attack helicopters to the active side.
The panel’s Military Personnel subcommittee chairman, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), and Rep. William Enyart (D-Ill.) will offer an amendment on the balance between the active-duty Army and the National Guard on Wednesday, a bill summary stated.
The proposed bill would also get rid of the ability of commanders to use the “good soldier defense” — the consideration of general military character — when deciding whether to prosecute a military sexual assault case.
It proposes an additional $79.4 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations to pay for combat operations in Afghanistan through the end of 2014 and the post-war mission through 2015, as well as other U.S. operations around the globe. The Pentagon has not proposed a figure for war spending in 2015.
The bill provides $495.8 billion for the core defense budget, $17.9 billion for Department of Energy programs within the Pentagon, and the $79.4 billion for OCO funding.
The proposed authorization bill prohibits U.S. military contact and cooperation with the Russian military until Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel certifies that Moscow is “no longer illegally occupying Crimea” and that the Kremlin is compliant with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.
McKeon would also require the Pentagon to submit a “sustainment plan” for the Afghan National Security Forces through 2018. He warns the White House that it should not leave fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops in that country, and the remaining soldiers should be tasked with an additional counternarcotics mission.
In addition, the legislation would cut off aid to Pakistan until Hagel confirms Islamabad is not restricting U.S. supply routes in the region and is taking action against terrorist organizations.