Sen. John McCain (Getty Images via AFP)
WASHINGTON — US Lawmakers are expected to battle over armed drones, softening the blow of military budget cuts and a controversial missile defense shield as they craft Pentagon policy legislation for fiscal 2014.
Mirroring the political climate in Washington, work on the past several national defense authorization acts (NDAAs) has, at times, turned bitterly partisan. Longtime defense insiders say the new tone likely is here to stay for some time.
Indeed, the issues expected to dominate the NDAA build this spring and summer in the House and Senate Armed Services committees — and then will spill onto the chamber floors — sharply divide most Democrats and Republicans.
From whether to leave President Barack Obama’s drone-strike program under the CIA’s control or shift to the Pentagon, to closing the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility that houses terrorism suspects, to a proposal to build an East Coast missile shield, the 2014 NDAA process is shaping up to be a partisan kerfuffle.
“I see a couple of bigger policy issues this year,” House Armed Services Committee (HASC) member Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., told Defense News. “And one of those will be the proper use of drones.”
Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress, added to that list of problems with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the Pentagon’s likely DOA plan to close military bases in the US and whether to keep building Army tanks in Michigan, home state of Democratic Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman Sen. Carl Levin.
The simmering debate about the White House’s consideration of moving the drone program from the CIA to the military is shaping up to be a turf war among congressional panels. But not political parties.
On one side are powerful pro-military lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a senior Senate Armed Services Committee member. On the other are influential pro-CIA members such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Many pro-military House Democrats, such as HASC member Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and Larsen favor giving the Pentagon full ownership.
“If we’re going to have a drone program, I’d rather it be brought into the Department of Defense to get more transparency and more accountability,” Larsen said. “We would be able to have more members of Congress with the ability to look into how it’s being done, how it’s being used.
“There’s also an issue with how targets are being developed. That’s an issue more members need to be educated on,” Larsen said. “We need to give it more oversight.”
The wild card in the debate just might be HASC Chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., who seemed ambivalent when asked whether the CIA or military should run America’s targeted killing program.
“I think the military has some ownership, but I think the CIA has some ownership, too,” McKeon told Defense News on March 21.
In a twist, McKeon seemed OK with keeping the program split between the CIA and the military.
“If the CIA can still operate its program,” he said, “I think that’s fine.”
Other wild cards to watch are House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., and Levin. Both, in recent weeks, have declined to comment when asked about the matter.
A major issue will be whether McCain and his camp can convince Feinstein and other lawmakers whether the military will use the same kind of targeting procedures the intel agency employs.
Like the East Coast missile shield, sources expect Republican members to make an old idea new again by proposing to give Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel new authorities aimed at softening the blow of sequestration.
This year, SASC Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., proposed a measure that would have given the defense secretary the ability to decide what gets cut instead of the current law’s mandate of an across-the-board cut to all nonexempt Pentagon accounts.
“I think both chambers are going to try to ... give DoD some flexibility,” Korb said. “Buck McKeon will probably try to get that in,” Korb said, adding he believes HASC Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., “will agree with him on that.”
The Pentagon’s planned issuing of furlough notices could create angry constituents across the nation because the Defense Department and industry have scattered the sector’s jobs from coast to coast.
“This could end up like the air traffic controllers issue, with people complaining about furloughs,” Korb said. “And I think that kind of flexibility for 2014 could pass in both chambers.”
But senior Democrats likely would mount a resistance, Korb said. House Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, who hails from the defense-sector state of Maryland, said giving individual federal entities flexibility is a poor solution to sequestration.
“We ought not to be mitigating the sequester’s effect on just one segment when children, the sick, our military and many other groups who will be impacted by this irresponsible policy will be left unhealed,” Hoyer said on the House floor April 26.
East Coast Missile Shield
Stymied last year by skeptical Senate Democrats, House GOP proponents of erecting a missile shield on America’s East Coast are ready for a new political brawl.
Sixteen House Republicans opened a new front in the missile shield battle last week, announcing plans to clear the Pentagon to spend up to $250 million to begin work on the proposed site.
And, covering all their bases, they are leaning on a key colleague to foot the bill.
The 16 GOP members, in an April 26 letter, asked House Appropriations defense subcommittee Chairman Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., to allocate the same or a similar amount for the controversial proposal in his version of 2014 military spending legislation.
The letter reveals that the HASC’s 2014 authorization bill will include language clearing the Pentagon to spend the proposed $250 million on “site design, missile complex development and installation of hardware and software, and GBI [ground-based interceptor] funding procurement for the site and the 20 ground-based interceptors.”
The 2013 House plan died in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Republicans control the HASC and the entire lower chamber, with Democrats in control of the bill-writing committees in the Senate and the entire upper chamber.
Levin said spending hundreds of millions of dollars, at the least, on an East Coast site for which the Pentagon has no requirement would be unwise and a waste of money. ■