Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are looking to 'give flexibility' to Pentagon leaders to decide what gets cut under sequestration. (Rob Curtis/Staff)
WASHINGTON — The US Senate this week could begin a combative process on a Pentagon policy bill, but the bluster almost entirely will exclude the defense sector’s most-pressing concern: sequestration.
When the upper chamber takes up its version of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), senior senators said they will seek to add an amendment that would give the Pentagon greater flexibility to decide where the cuts fall.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently told Capitol Hill reporters that 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 expected amendment could hit trouble in the Democratic-controlled Senate because many senior Democrats oppose giving such flexibility to one federal department but not others. To them, the move would be unfair.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told a Senate panel on Nov. 7 that the Pentagon would welcome the added authority.
“This mechanism that makes us take big chunks of money the first two years is what is putting us into this readiness versus modernization dilemma,” he said. “The overall cost of sequestration reduces our capability and capacity over time, but it doesn’t break us. The mechanism is what breaks us.”
Welsh said allowing Pentagon officials to map out what gets cut “would be a much, much more sensible approach.”
Otherwise, the Senate floor work on the legislation, which Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., told Defense News will take at least five days, will focus on other issues.
“It’s always possible sequestration comes up, but doubtful because it hasn’t really been a fight on other bills this year or last,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate defense staffer now with the American Enterprise Institute.
Both House and Senate legislation ignores the second round of across-the-board cuts to nonexempt accounts, set to occur in mid-January. Both bills, when Energy Department funding is factored in, authorize about $522 billion in base 2014 defense funding.
But the Senate’s bill calls for $80 billion for overseas contingencies operations; the House-passed level is $85 billion. A conference committee would have to find a compromise, and it is possible they’ll simply split the difference.
The Obama administration’s 2014 defense budget plan also ignores sequestration, though its full federal budget plan did propose a way to undo it.
Under sequester, about $50 billion in across-the-board cuts to nonexempt national defense accounts is set to kick in later this year unless Congress and Obama agree on a deal to replace the defense cuts with other deficit-reduction items.
With talks toward that kind of “grand bargain” stalled, a senior House Armed Services Committee (HASC) aide acknowledged earlier this year that Congress, by opting against factoring in spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, is “living in a fantasy world.”
“The NDAA is a policy bill that doesn’t set funding levels, so I wouldn’t necessarily expect the two competing bills to address sequestration,” said Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “What really matters right now are the appropriations bills.”
So far, the House and Senate have passed ideologically different budget resolutions that fit that description. All congressional panels that completed 2014 defense bills followed HASC’s lead by ignoring sequestration.
Critics say this approach again raises the image of a meat ax approach to the Pentagon budget that on Jan. 15 will begin indiscriminately cutting.
Contentious debates and amendments are expected on the Senate floor this week on a number of hot-button issues.
Eaglen, who recently briefed Senate Republican staffers on NDAA issues, highlighted terrorist detainee policy, Pentagon sexual assault problems and the legality of the US armed drone program. She said other “hot topics” that could arise include cyber security, “the role of DoD vis-à-vis CIA,” NSA domestic surveillance programs and security clearance concerns.
And some big-ticket weapon programs are expected to be the subject of amendments this week.
McCain told reporters recently he is preparing an amendment aimed at the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program. He was largely mum about the amendment’s details, but said, “We need more scrutiny and more benchmarks.”
Asked whether pausing the program would drive up unit costs, making the entire program more expensive, McCain pushed back.
“The costs have been driven up dramatically, and outrageously, and obscenely,” McCain said.
Lawmakers for years have griped about the program’s growing price tag — though some Navy observers said the program’s managers and service officials have turned it into a rare, well-performing defense acquisition program.
A proposed East Coast missile shield has also raised debate. For the House, aides said authorizers have approved $140 million for the controversial program, but the House-approved 2014 Defense Appropriations Bill includes a provision that would allocate only $70 million toward the system. The Senate bill is silent, for now, on the shield.
House and Senate Republicans said the new site is needed to protect population centers in the eastern US as Iran and North Korea continue long-range missile work.
Some GOP members claim that increasingly sophisticated Chinese naval vessels equipped with ballistic missiles could launch against the East Coast. But many Democrats, such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., say it is not needed and would be too pricey.
If built, the project could provide a boost to US missile interceptor makers, radar manufacturers and their suppliers, while also giving an economic lift to the states in which it would be erected.
Senate Republican advocates of the shield, like Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, might try to amend the upper chamber’s bill to include similar language. If new East Coast provisions are not added, the eventual conference committee would be left to decide the shield’s fate — until the 2015 policy bill debate, that is.■