WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee voted 60-1 to authorize $696.5 billion in defense spending for 2018, which adds $21 billion of $31 billion of DoD-requested weapons programs left unfunded by the Trump budget request.
Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said the National Defense Authorization Act takes "significant steps toward rebuilding the military" and a 355-ship Navy, with $6 billion added for shipbuilding.
"There are many moving pieces to the broader budget picture that will develop over this year, but for today and for our responsibilities as the Armed Services Committee, it is important for us to put down this marker for what we need for national defense," he said.
But the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith, countered that Congress has "vastly over-promised" on what it can deliver on defense spending, given its dynamics. The bill's base-budget exceeds the $549 billion statutory budget cap for defense, and easing the cap means navigating both deficit hawks in the House and Senate Democrats who will not lift caps without increased domestic spending.
"We have basically not been honest with the American people about the choices that we face, and Oct. 1" — the start of fiscal 2018 — "this all comes to a head, when all these promises that don't add up leave us in a very bad place," said Smith, D-Wash. "It is highly unlikely at the end of this process we will have $696 billion."
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The HASC voted at 11:59 p.m. to send the bill to the House floor, making the nearly 14-hour markup the fastest for the panel's NDAA in recent years. Thornberry estimated at the top of the markup that a new, paperless amendment process would save the committee an hour and $10,000.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was the lone "no" vote. An fierce skeptic of U.S. activity in Syria, she cited what she said were vetting issues with the American program to train and equip Syrian fighters.
House GOP leaders this week put off consideration of a resolution setting numbers for the federal budget as conservatives pressed for deeper cuts to mandatory spending. However, there appeared to be agreement on the defense top line, with $511 billion for nondefense in fiscal 2018.
The NDAA would authorize $621.5 billion in the base budget and $75 billion in the wartime overseas contingency operations account, which is exempt from budget caps. Funded through OCO would be $10 billion in base requirements.
Earlier in the day, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its draft of the annual authorization measure, with a different top line and different set of priorities that will have to be reconciled in the coming months.
The NDAA covers the Defense Department and Department of Energy, so the HASC bill actually includes $592.8 billion in discretionary base dollars for the Pentagon and $20.8 billion for DOE.
Trump hat tips
Among several Trump-themed amendments offered by Democrats, the HASC included an amendment that bars the funds in the bill from going to a border wall. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, offered key language before Thornberry countered.
"There is nothing in this bill that has anything to do with a wall on the border," Thornberry said; but Republicans were unable to bat it down.
Another Trump-themed amendment that failed 31-31 was aimed at ordering quarterly reports on how much the DoD spends to support President Donald Trump and his family's frequent travel. Democrats argued the travel is wasteful and violates the emoluments clause of the Constitution because Trump profits by staying at his own properties.
Rep. Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz., who offered the amendment, said the Air Force reported to him that Trump's travel cost the DoD more than $15 million through mid-May.
Smith, the lawmaker from Washington, said in support: "This is unprecedented and goes way beyond any petty partisan concern."
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, accused Democrats of reaching outside the HASC's scope to re-litigate the election. "You have a problem with this president, I get it. I had a problem with the last one," he said. "This is not what we ought to be spending our time on."
By and large, the HASC handed the Pentagon and industry a list of victories on weapon-program funding and its blessing to buy more big-ticket items than the president's budget request would have.
For the Navy's shipbuilding programs, the bill adds five more ships to the president's request for eight. There's one more DDG-51 for a total of three destroyers; it adds two littoral combat ships for a total of three; and it adds a Puller-class expeditionary sea base.
The chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., fended off an amendment to cut the third LCS, with a 43-19 vote. The amendment from Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass, would have moved $556 million for the ship toward munitions that U.S. Pacific Command requested but the White House left unfunded.
Moulton called the beleaguered LCS program a "congressional boondoggle," while Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., pointed to one ship plagued by a hull crack and corrosion and the DoD's conclusion in 2012 that the ship was not survivable in combat.
But Republicans argued that adding a third vessel would cut costs overall at the Wisconsin and Alabama shipyards where the ships are built. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., said that contrary to opponents' claims, the Navy wants the third LCS and that cutting it would spark shipyard layoffs.
"The three ships not only maintains a healthy industrial base, because without three ships, the skilled workforce will suffer a 10 to 40 percent layoff resulting in an extended production timeline and unit cost increases of 10 to 15 percent," Byrne said. "The labor force is not a spigot. When you turn it off, you can't just turn it on again."
For aviation, the proposal adds 17 Lockheed Martin-made F-35 fighter jets above the Trump request for a total of 87. It adds eight Boeing-made Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets for a total of 22 and adds six P-8A Poseidon aircraft for a total of 13.
It also adds funds for KC-46A air refueling aircraft, six more MC-130J aircraft and one HC-130J special mission aircraft.
The bill authorized an additional $103 million to preserve three A-10 Warthog squadrons that, without funding for new wings, could begin retiring as early as the mid-2020s.
House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., fended off an amendment that would have delayed his plans to carve a new Space Corps out of the Air Force. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, had offered the amendment, arguing the corps would be a major shift without an appropriate level of study.
"With the work we've done, you wouldn't be able to write a thesis, you would be able to write a memo, and the memo would say we've had several discussions," Turner said before the amendment was defeated by a voice vote. "A meeting is not enough."
Air Force officials have balked at the move, which would create a new military service responsible for national security in space, subordinate to the Air Force and U.S. Strategic Command, with a four-star leader in the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Rogers said there had been an extraordinary amount of deliberation in his subcommittee, and that the Air Force would only be required to design the new force next year. He and Strategic Forces ranking member Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said the force is needed for America to stay competitive against Russia and China.
For the Army, the bill adds 17,000 troops and upgrades 29 more Abrams tanks and 33 more Bradley Fighting Vehicles, among other hardware.
The bill adds $300 million for 15 UH-60Ms for the Army National Guard; $308.7 million for nine AH-64Es; $243 million for nine CH-47F Block I helicopters; $246.5 million for four MH-47G Chinooks; and $16.7 million for three UH-60Vs.
Valerie Insinna, Jen Judson, David Larter, Aaron Mehta and Leo Shane III contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.