WASHINGTON — The U.S. House voted 356-70 on Tuesday to approve a $700 billion defense authorization plan for fiscal 2018 that rejects a proposed military service focused on space.
The bipartisan vote saw 127 Democrats joining 229 Republicans to overwhelmingly pass the bill. There were seven Republican and 63 Democratic “no” votes.
The House-passed 2018 National Defense Authorization Act instead plans less ambitious bureaucratic changes within the Defense Department’s space programs.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, lauded Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and ranking member Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., for initiating the “deep, far-reaching reforms” that Space Corps would have represented, “based on a real sense of urgency.”
The bill, which reflects a compromise between House-passed and Senate-passed versions of the bill, does boost military end strength by more than 20,000 service members. It would also add 90 new joint strike fighters to the military’s fleet and a third new littoral combat ship.
The bill still needs final approval from the full Senate and the president in the coming weeks, and lawmakers will have to reconcile the cost of the measure with existing spending caps in place. The conference plan is roughly $85 billion above what is allowed under law for fiscal 2018, and no firm agreement has been reached yet on how to deal with that issue.
But lawmakers on the House and Senate Armed Services committees have maintained for months that a sizable boost in defense spending is needed to keep up with military readiness and modernization shortfalls.
The measure — which sets aside about $626 billion for base defense funding and $66 billion for overseas contingency operations — includes money to pay for significant end-strength boosts for each of the services, in keeping with requests from the White House.
Thornberry, in a House floor speech Tuesday, defended the size of the bill. The nation has been grossly underspending on defense, resulting in undertrained troops and tragic mishaps, he said. He called the pending bill “a start” to reversing those trends.
“Our troops have borne the burden,” Thorberry said. “We are 2,000 pilots short in the Air Force today, 60 percent of F-18s in the Navy and Marine Corps cannot fly today. ... We have seen tragic accidents in the Pacific where 17 [sailors] have lost their lives,” he said. “Part of the responsibility for all of that rests here, with the Congress of the United States.”
The HASC’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith, of Washington, said he was proud of the bill, but lamented that Congress had no plan to ease budget caps to accommodate the bill’s top line. He said tax reform plans, which would sap revenue from the nation’s coffers, “undermine the ability to fund” the NDAA’s spending priorities — and he called the two GOP priorities “wildly inconsistent” with one another.
Smith also blasted the Trump administration’s national security strategy as “unclear” and said its ambitions are “far greater than we would ever have the resources to match.”
“While we also need to provide more funding and more stability, we also need to look at that national security strategy and say: ‘Where are we spending money that we shouldn’t be? What part of our strategy do we not need?’ ” Smith said. “If don’t cut back, we will never be able to provide adequate funding to our troops.”
The compromise bill would add 8,500 new soldiers, 5,000 new sailors, 5,800 new airmen and 1,000 new active-duty Marines.
Under the measure, current personnel would see a 2.4 percent pay raise next year, 0.3 percent above what President Donald Trump had recommended. The 2.4 percent mark equals the expected pay growth based on private sector wages and would be the largest boost for troops since 2010.
Negotiators dropped controversial plans in earlier authorization drafts to establish a new Space Corps in the coming years, instead opting for more technical changes in management and procurement rules for existing Air Force space programs. The White House and Pentagon had opposed the idea, calling it an extra level of bureaucracy.
But the lawmakers did include in the compromise bill the so-called Amazon amendment, which will allow defense officials to buy certain items online from commercial retailers. HASC members had said the provision would help make defense procurement less complicated and expensive.
The conference is set to authorize five more ships than requested in the president’s budget, along with extra funding for Army helicopters and Trump’s proposed buildup of the Air Force fleet.
The Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group, hailed the compromise bill’s hefty top line and several acquisitions-focused provisions.
Language in an earlier version, passed by the Senate, would have required large defense contractors pay government costs for processing a losing bid protest — a means to curb an increase in the number of protests. However, this was relaxed to a three-year pilot program.
Lawmakers have until mid-December to work out an appropriations plan for the final nine months of fiscal 2018, and that decision is likely to affect the timing of a defense authorization bill vote.
But committee staffers have been confident of broad support for the authorization plan’s spending levels, even with the looming budget uncertainty.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.