By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday approved a measure that would authorize just over $600 billion in 2015 US defense spending, while blocking A-10 retirement plans and ordering an independent group to study the Army’s future.
The chamber’s version of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act includes a $495.8 billion base Pentagon budget and $79.4 billion more for an overseas contingency operations (OCO) budget. It passed 385-98, with over 80 Democrats and more than 10 Republicans voting no.
The bill, crafted by the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), also authorizes $17.9 billion in Energy Department defense programs and $7.9 billion in mandatory defense spending.
And it could still grow larger because the OCO amount is a placeholder. The White House could send over an exact amount for the war in Afghanistan after the bill later goes to conference to resolve any differences between the House and Senate versions.
The House-passed measure shifts funds to protect a long list of weapon programs. That approach could be DOA in the Senate, where that chamber’s Armed Services Committee is crafting its version of the legislation. Senate subcommittee chairs gave clues in several open — but brief — mark-up sessions this week that the SASC bill would adopt much of the Obama administration’s 2015 defense budget, which proposed some weapon retirements and cuts.
Action on the chamber floor Wednesday and Thursday did not include any effort to reverse HASC’s language that prohibits retiring A-10 attack planes until the US comptroller general makes a number of certifications and completes several studies. Those measures would have to include a report to evaluate all Air Force platforms that are used for close air support missions.
Notably, the chamber defeated an amendment offered by California Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and John Garamendi, 191-233 with more than 200 GOP members voting no. The amendment would have voided the post-9/11 authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) one year after the final version of the NDAA is signed into law.
Lawmakers in both parties have talked in recent years about rescinding the AUMF or updating it, especially as al-Qaida has been weakened in Pakistan and Afghanistan but gained strength elsewhere.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters last year he doubted AUMF reform efforts would go anywhere because the White House opposes altering the measure. But some legal scholars say the Obama administration may push for changes near the end of Barack Obama’s second term, which ends in January 2017.
Very Little Debate
The chamber approved more than 100 amendments in just a few hours on Wednesday evening, most without any serious debate via six large blocs adopted via voice votes. Another bloc of amendments was adopted Thursday morning.
The chamber also approved a bipartisan amendment that would set up an independent commission to study the Army’s future structure. Specifically, the provision would require the commission to explore: “(1) the necessary size (2) the proper force mixture of the active component and reserve component (3) missions (4) force generation policies, including assumptions behind those policies (5) and how the structure should be modified to best fulfill mission requirements in a manner consistent with available resources,” according to a House summary.
Senate Armed Services Airland subcommittee Chairman Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told reporters Tuesday that the full SASC version of the bill also would mandate an Army structure commission.
The measure includes an amendment from Rep. John Mulvaney, R-S.C., and Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., which “codifies criteria developed by [the White House Office of Management and Budget] in 2010 to clarify when military spending should be designated as contingency operations and properly be part of the Overseas Contingency Operation budget,” according to a House summary.
Members of both parties are increasingly skeptical of the Pentagon and White House budget practice of using that war fund to pay for things lawmakers and analysts contend are not directly related to America’s post-9/11 wars.
On the floor, another amendment was tacked on directing the White House to sell Lockheed Martin-made F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan. It also includes a proposal to shift $99 million to buy Raytheon-made Standard Missiles.
On the floor, members approved an amendment from Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., requiring US plans for Afghanistan through 2018 to describe opportunities for American companies to win contracts to equip Afghan security forces.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., won approval for a measure that would prohibit the establishment of permanent US military bases on Afghan soil.
The floor process left intact the general crux of the House Armed Services Committee-crafted bill: It protects a slew of weapon programs. It does so mostly by raiding accounts used for service contracts and other non-weapons accounts.
Those transfers would give the armed services billions in order to refuel the aircraft carrier George Washington, develop missile defenses with Israel, buy EA-18G aircraft and upgrade Abrams tanks — projects not budgeted in the Obama administration’s 2015 Pentagon spending request.
The bill would shift $796.2 million to refuel the GW and maintain an 11-carrier fleet, $450 million for five EA-18Gs, $348 million for the “Israeli Cooperative Missile Defense” program, $800 million for the Navy’s amphibious ship program and $120 million for the Abrams upgrades.
It also proposes $82 million for 96 Tomahawk missiles, $80 million for body armor and over $240 million for three combat vehicle programs.
To protect those programs, others took hits. That list includes the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization ($49.5 million), Littoral Combat Ship program ($350 million), Energy Department uranium enrichment fund ($100 million).
Notably, $817.5 million from accounts used to pay for service contracts would be tapped.
With the lower chamber now finished with its 2015 NDAA, attention shifts across the Capitol. The Senate Armed Services Committee is working behind closed doors on its version of the bill, and is slated to finish this week. The full upper chamber likely will not take up the bill until the fall.
A House-Senate conference committee would then hammer out the differences and craft a final version.