Time is Short: US Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., listens to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testify on the fiscal 2015 budget June 18. After the House passed its version of the appropriations bill on June 20, the Senate has little time to act before its August recess. (Chip Somodevilla/ / Getty Images)
- Filed Under
WASHINGTON — In a flurry of activity that wrapped up early on the afternoon of June 20, the US House of Representatives pushed through several controversial amendments to the $570.4 billion 2015 defense appropriations bill before handing its version off to the Senate for its own markups this summer.
The legislation included several hot-button amendments opposed by the Pentagon and the White House.
The bill, which includes $491 billion in base budget funding plus a $79.4 billion “placeholder” for the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account, which the White House has yet to deliver to the Hill, will now wait until the Senate Appropriations Committee marks up its version after the July 4 recess. That would give the Senate about two weeks to pass its version before Congress goes home for August.
The House bill includes $789 million to refuel and overhaul the aircraft carrier George Washington. The Senate Armed Services Committee last month authorized $650 million for the same purpose.
The House bill also approves $5.8 billion on 38 F-35 aircraft, $975 million for the Navy to purchase 12 more EA-18G Growlers, and $1.6 billion for seven KC-46A tankers, in addition to approving amendments to block the mothballing of the venerable A-10 attack plane and the KC-10 refueling tanker, both platforms that the Pentagon has said it wants to begin to retire in favor of newer aircraft. The Air Force has said that retiring the A-10 alone would save the service $4.2 billion over the next five years.
The amendment adds to the earlier Senate Armed Services Committee authorization bill that would block the retirement of the A-10, and the House’s passage of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which did the same when passed this year.
The White House has said it “strongly opposes” the bill in its current form, but has not said whether the president would consider a veto.
Speaking to reporters hereJune 18, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said “we need to continue to explain that we have to move on, that we have these other missions that we need most of the units to do with other aircraft.”
In a surprise move, the House also voted 293-123 to prohibit the warrantless collection of the online information of American citizens, while blocking the National Security Agency from adding “backdoors” to commercial communications products.
“The American people are sick of being spied on,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who allied with Democrats and more libertarian-minded Republicans in getting the amendment passed.
The amendment bars the NSA and the CIA from mandating that a company “alter its product or service to permit the electronic surveillance ... of any user of said product or service for said agencies.”
There’s already support in the Senate for such a measure. On June 20, several prominent Senate Democrats sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling on him to end some of the most controversial NSA collection programs, specifically the bulk collection of data of ordinary citizens.
Democratic Sens. Mark Udall, Colo., Martin Heinrich, N.M., and Ron Wyden, Ore., wrote that the president should “immediately end the practice of vacuuming up the phone records of huge numbers of innocent Americans every day and permit the government to obtain only the phone records of people actually connected to terrorism or other nefarious activity.”
Last month, the House passed the USA Freedom Act, which was designed to curtail the bulk collection of data while requiring the government to obtain a court order to scour records held by phone companies. The bill has come under fire for having been too watered down by the time it passed.
The Democratic senators echoed those sentiments, writing that they’re not confident that the bill being debated in the Senate “would actually ban the bulk collection of Americans’ records.”
The resolution of all of these budget issues likely won’t be found any time soon, as the Senate continues to be locked in a budget debate from which it is having a hard time extricating itself.
On June 19, Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., stalled the $126.2 billion “minibus” spending package that would fund the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development after the body proved unable to reach an agreement on proposed amendments.
What this portends for the defense bill remains to be seen, but it does mean that the Senate will have a full dance card in the short month of July, which is punctuated by an extended break for the July 4 holiday before taking August off. ■