The future littoral combat ship Coronado conducts at-sea acceptance trials in the Gulf of Mexico in August. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he is preparing an amendment that would bring changes to the LCS program, but would not go into details. (Austal USA via US Navy)
WASHINGTON — The US Senate is poised to take up a major Pentagon policy bill the week before Thanksgiving, a senior Republican lawmaker said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told Defense News on Tuesday that he expects the upper chamber will take up its version of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) the week of Nov. 18.
“We’ve been talking about it. There’s been some talk about the 18th is when it would start,” Inhofe said on his first full day back here after undergoing a heart procedure in Oklahoma last month.
“Sooner is better,” Inhofe said. “It’s going to take a full week. So it would seem to me that we should get started sooner than the 18th.”
Speaking later to reporters, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he can’t confirm when the Senate will take up the policy bill.
Levin also said it is unclear if the bill will be finished before Thanksgiving.
“I would not make travel plans,” he told reporters.
Contentious debates and amendments are expected on a number of hot-button issues, including NSA domestic spying programs, detainee policy, the future of the Guantanamo Bay terrorist suspect detention center, sequestration and some big-ticket weapon programs.
In fact, on the latter, committee member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters Tuesday that he is preparing an amendment that would bring changes to the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program.
McCain was largely mum about the amendment’s details.
“We’re working on an amendment,” McCain said. “We need more scrutiny and more benchmarks.”
When pressed about the possibility he will propose pausing the LCS program, he added: “It depends on what you mean by pausing it. Does it mean a certain number are going to be procured, or is [the program buy] open-ended.”
Asked whether pausing the program in any regard would drive up unit costs, thereby making the entire program more expensive, McCain pushed back.
Lawmakers for years have griped about the program’s growing price tag — though some Navy observers say the program’s managers and service officials have turned it into a rare well-performing defense acquisition program.
“The costs have been driven up dramatically, and outrageously, and obscenely,” McCain shot back. “That’s why we are examining the whole situation.”
McCain also said he and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are working on an amendment that would “give flexibility” to Pentagon leaders to decide what gets cut under sequestration — “but also maintains oversight.”
The Senate’s NDAA proposes around $526.6 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget request, and $79.4 billion to fund the war in Afghanistan and other overseas conflicts. Those were the amounts requested by the Obama administration.
Both funding authorization levels set up a major issue when a House-Senate conference committee is tasked with crafting a final version of the NDAA to send to President Barack Obama.
That’s because the House Armed Services Committee-approved version would clear the Pentagon to spend up to $552.1 billion in 2014. What’s more, the House bill would approve a war-funding measure of about $85 billion.
The Senate bill mostly adopts the administration’s plans for high-profile weapon programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and LCS.
On LCS, the upper chamber’s bill already proposes a mandatory review of the program. The legislation excludes a cost cap for the Navy’s new aircraft carrier program, though a Senate Armed Services Committee aide told reporters in June that McCain pushed for language mandating one during the committee’s mark up of the bill.
With McCain and some influential House Armed Services Committee members like Virginia GOP Rep. Randy Forbes in favor of such a provision, it could be an issue for the coming conference committee.
The Senate Armed Services Committee set up a major conference issue by excluding any approval of money for a House Republican-proposed East Coast missile shield.
However, the Senate’s bill essentially proposes a compromise by authorizing the Pentagon to spend funds to set up advanced sensors that senior military missile defense officials tell Senate Armed Services Committee leaders would be “more effective than just missiles,” Levin told reporters in June.
The House passed its version of the 2014 NDAA this year.