Sen. James Inhofe. (Agence France-Presse)
Sen. Carl Levin. / Agence France-Presse
WASHINGTON — The US House on Thursday — for the second time this year — approved a 2014 Pentagon policy bill, setting up a high-stakes showdown in a Senate that one veteran lawmaker called “poisonous.”
House and Senate Armed Services Committee leaders worked over a Thanksgiving recess to cobble together a compromise $607 billion defense authorization bill that would approve $527 billion in base funding and $80 billion for America’s overseas conflicts.
It includes a slew of provisions originally included in either — or both — of a previous House-passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) or a SASC-passed version that was killed by the full Senate on Nov. 20.
Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., other members and senior staffers from both chambers put the new NDAA together. They managed to include about 80 non-controversial amendments that had been pushed by House members and senators.
Those cover everything from sexual assault to building infrastructure in Afghanistan to funding for new platforms, such as nuclear aircraft carriers and a long-range bomber. Also making the cut were provisions for Pentagon-run anti-narcotics programs, assisting the Jordanian armed forces in securing their border with Syria and cash aimed at the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons stocks.
Speaking on the House floor prior to the NDAA vote, HASC Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., called passing it a necessity. Citing Republicans’ and Democrats’ low approval ratings, Smith cast passing the bill as an opportunity to show the American people Congress can function.
Other HASC members took to the House floor Thursday afternoon to lobby for the bill, saying it would boost military readiness, help the Pentagon continue the Obama administration’s pivot toward Asia, upgrade ground vehicles, keep the F-35 fighter program on track and support the US defense industrial base.
The measure was approved 350-69.
HASC Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said the bill would provide funds needed to upgrade the Army’s ground vehicles and keep key production lines humming.
Also for the Army, the controversial Medium Extended Air Defense System missile intercept program remains unfunded in the compromise bill as it was in the original House and Senate markups. But after spending $2.5 billion to develop the program over the past several years, Congress is giving the Pentagon six months to study what technologies it may be able to harvest from the canceled program for use with other missile defense programs that remain in the budget.
When it comes to the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) program, the service’s much-touted next-generation infantry vehicle, Congress is prohibiting the Army from moving past its next milestone in late fiscal 2014 to award a development contract to one vendor until it submits a report on the health of the ground vehicle industrial base to congressional committees.
Army leadership has already pushed the contract award date back six months and has recently expressed doubts that it has the funds to continue to develop the program under sequestration. Still, the bill provides the Army the funding it had requested to reach that next milestone.
Funds to modernize the Bradley fighting vehicle and the Stryker also made it into the bill, as did funds to continue to develop the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, and to continue work on the Army’s main priority, the WIN-T mobile communications network and associated radios and handheld devices.
A-10, Global Hawk
The compromise bill includes a provision that should protect the Air Force’s A-10 attack plane fleet through the end of 2014.
The compromise legislation also protects Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV from further cuts, the latest blow to Air Force attempts to divest itself of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform.
If the NDAA passes as is, the Air Force will be unable to spend any money to prepare to divest itself of either the A-10 or the RQ-4 for fiscal 2014. To that end, it also stipulates that the same rule applies to the A-10 through the end of calendar 2014.
There is a catch: The Air Force will be allowed to retire A-10s it had planned to remove from the fleet as of April 9, 2013.
For the Navy, the legislation would slap restrictions on the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. It includes language stating no funds can be spent for construction or advanced procurement on LCS models 24 and 25 until the sea service turns over reams of data to Congress.
The bill also would place cost caps on the Navy’s CVN-78 aircraft carrier program. The lead ship could not exceed $12.8 billion, and all follow-on ships in the class would be capped at $11.5 billion.
HASC member Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., touted the bill’s inclusion of $5.9 billion for the Virginia-class submarine program.
“The US Navy’s pre-eminence in the undersea domain must continue,” he said. “This bill includes $1 billion for Ohio-replacement program design work, which is the best guarantee that we’ll have a cost-effective [program].”
There is a “critical need for this in our Navy,” Courtney said of a new ballistic missile submarine fleet.
HASC member Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said the bill provides billions needed for key Guard and Reserve programs, while authorizing the Pentagon to take steps to avoid another attack like the deadly one in 2012 in Benghazi, Libya.
Into Lion's Den
While those items made it into the compromise bill, the NDAA is about to get thrown back into the middle of a nasty political fight over the Senate’s rules, and Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid’s management of the chamber.
Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republicans like SASC member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said this week they should be able to offer debate and vote on amendments to the defense bill on the floor.
But Reid and Levin contend using an amendments-free process is the lone way to get the bill signed into law by Dec. 31, the date a list of provisions expire, raising concerns about combat pay and other sensitive matters.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters Thursday he will do “everything I can” to help Reid and Levin pass the bill, likely next week. But he acknowledges his GOP colleagues are angry about Reid’s recent Senate rule change and his handling of amendments on all bills.
“The atmosphere around here is poisoned after what they’re doing, moving all these nominees through like they are [and] rubbing our noses in it,” McCain said of Reid’s invoking of the “nuclear option on nominations to kill the filibuster.
Republicans are “justified” in their anger over Reid’s management of the Senate, McCain said, acknowledging the bad blood could again sink the NDAA.
Levin: 'I Don't Know'
If that happens, Levin says the bill may simply die for good.
Senior SASC members expect the compromise bill to hit the Senate floor next week.
Levin frequently tells reporters that he “an optimistic guy.” But this week, he has been uncharacteristically tepid in his forecasts about the defense bill’s fate.
“I don’t know,” Levin said when asked if the bill will move quickly through his chamber next week. “It depends on all the other pieces on the chess board.”
He called it “essential” that House Republican leaders opted against attaching any riders to the NDAA — like a provision on Obamacare — that would have caused Reid to kill the bill.
While Levin has been guarded in predicting the bill will eventually be signed by President Barack Obama, Inhofe was more optimistic.
“I feel very confident that … we’ll pass it next week,” he told reporters.
Asked if GOP colleagues should hold up or block it, Inhofe said: “It sure shouldn’t. To use this bill as a protest that they didn’t have their amendments, when it does all the things that they want in a bill, I think they’re more logical than that.
“It’s the one bill that we have to have,” Inhofe said.
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.