WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday voted to add billions to a list of Pentagon weapons programs — some cut by the White House — and signed off on a $583 billion Pentagon budget that blurs the lines between wartime funding and base-budget requirements.
To skirt statutory budget caps, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act endorses a plan to shift $18 billion in wartime Ooverseas Ccontingency Ooperations (OCO) funding toward base budget requirements, and adds more troops, jet aircraft, shipbuilding and rotorcraft than the president's budget. The bill also cuts off OCO after April 30, 2017, a gambit to force the next president to ask Congress for supplemental defense spending next year.
The final vote was 277-147. House Armed Services Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., voted against it over the shifting of OCO dollars for base needs. The HASC-approved NDAA or the spending bill, which uses the same approach and passed the House Appropriations Committee earlier in the week.
The administration attacked the HASC bill on two fronts this week, with a White House veto threat on Monday and Defense Secretary Ash Carter continuing his condemnation of the plan Tuesday in a speech at the annual Sea-Air-Space exposition outside Washington.
Forty Democrats joined 237 Republicans voting to pass the bill. The bill got Voting against the bill were 142 Democratic no votes, with 5 five GOP members joining them.
Smith, who voted for the bill in committee, said on the floor his feelings were mixed because the funding plan put defense "on a fiscal path to nowhere," and decided to vote against it because the Rules Committee prevented debate on an amendment aimed at protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees of federal contractors from workplace discrimination.
Jousting with HASC Chair Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, Smith said the force structure added back into the bill sets the military on an unsustainable path, based on "fantasy," particularly in light of statutory budget caps.
"We're not making choices," Smith said. "We refuse to get rid of the A-10. We refuse to lay off 11 cruisers. We refuse to allow the military to shrink in size and instead we keep putting it on the credit card and hoping the money will appear. "
Thornberry defended the funding strategy as necessary to address training, maintenance and modernization shortfalls that affect serving troops with immediate needs. The chairman continued to point to an uptick in major military aircraft mishaps and aircraft maintainers struggling to find parts for aging fleets as emblematic of dangerous funding shortfalls.
"My view is: Help the troops now," Thornberry said. "Because now is the time that they are cannibalizing the aircraft [for parts], not getting the minimum number of training hours, seeing Class A mishaps go up, have only nine B-1s that are able to fly. The statistics go on and on."
The closest thing to a Democratic alternative was a failed amendment offered by Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, which would have cut funding for base budget procurement items from OCO to $1.3 billion, with $9.4 billion is transferred to the OCO operations and maintenance fund and $26 million designated for suicide prevention.
For all the drama over funding strategy, Republicans nipped a floor debate in the bud Monday when the House Rules Committee stripped language from the bill on that would have mandated women register for the draft. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine veteran who criticized the opening of combat jobs to women, introduced the amendment during the HASC markup of the bill seemingly to spark a debate — and was surprised when the committee narrowly passed it.
As the Senate Armed Services Committee takes up its version of the NDAA on Monday, there is potential for a House-Senate fight over the issue. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and SASC Chair John McCain, R-Ariz., have indicated they would support drafting women into the military, where diversity has increased under the Obama administration.
"The professional voluntary Army has been very successful," McConnell said, when asked at a news conference Tuesday. "We're talking here about registration for Selective Service, should we ever go back to a draft. And given where we are today, with women in the military performing virtually all kinds of functions, I personally think it would be appropriate for them to register just like men do."
Overall, members handed the Defense Department and industry a list of victories on weapon program funding and its blessing to buy more of some big-ticket items than the services had included in their respective budget requests — using OCO to skirt spending caps. The bill drew from the services' $22 billion list of "unfunded priorities."
Lawmakers added $1.4 billion for 14 F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet aircraft for the Navy, and $1.5 billion to allow for the purchase for 11 extra Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-35s.
That is five additional F-35As for the Air Force, two F-35Bs for the Marine Corps and four F-35Cs for the Navy. The Air Force in its wish list had requested $691 million for the five jets, bringing the total it would buy in fiscal 2017 back up to the 48 it originally planned.
For the third consecutive year, the panel rejected an Air Force plan to retire its aging A-10 attack planes, due to begin in fiscal 2018, pending the results of tests for the F-35. The Air Force argues the decades-old A-10 Warthogs are too expensive to keep flying, but lawmakers reject those arguments, saying the A-10s — which bring jobs to their states and districts — save US lives on the battlefield and must be kept operational.
The bill would require the Air Force to maintain a minimum of 171 A-10 aircraft Warthogs and bar significant cuts to manning levels related to any A-10 units until the director of operational test and evaluation reports to Congress on the results of the initial operational test and evaluation of the F-35, as well as a comparison test and evaluation that examines the capabilities of the F-35A and A-10C.
For the Army, the bill authorized $700 million extra for helicopter buys. It also provided the authority to purchase Boeing-made AH-64E Apache helicopters and Sikorsky-made UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters using multiyear contract authority, which together will save close to $1 billion over five years, according to a fact sheet on the bill.
The bill authorized $440 million more for additional UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters, $162 million more for AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, $150 million more for two V-22 Ospreys and $95 million more for one Northrop Grumman-made MQ-4C Triton.
The chamber approved shipbuilding increases totaling $20.6 billion, $2.3 billion more than the president's budget, which subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., has called "the highest level of shipbuilding funding since the Reagan-Lehman era, adjusting for inflation."
The bill includes two new ships — a littoral combat ship (LCS) and an amphibious ship — and completes full funding of a partially funded destroyer from last year, an addition the subcommittee is counting as a full ship. The bill seeks to prevent reductions in the cruiser, amphibious ship and mine warfare forces. It also authorized funding for three destroyers, one above the president's budget.
The chamber House also approved an added $79 million to preserve a 10th carrier air wing, which was due to be cut in the president’s budget, and it authorized $90 million for cruiser-phased modernization, rejecting the president’s plan to lay up more cruisers.
Marking a key split with the Senate version of the NDAA, the House passed language to raise the cap on the number of Russian rocket engines the Air Force can buy from nine to 18. The move is meant to take a slower approach as the Air Force seeks to end its reliance and find American suppliers.
Proponents said they reluctantly need to use the Russian-built RD-180 for US space launches while the US industrial base ramps up to offer competing engines — a path advocated by the Pentagon.
There were 181 proposed amendments considered over two days of debate, with plenty of floor action.
Among those that passed was Thornberry’s proposal to cap the staff of the National Security Council, which ballooned to 400 people under President Obama. The amendment, which answers concerns the office meddles in military affairs, would require the president seek Senate confirmation of his national security advisoer if the NSC staff grows beyond 100 people.
Thornberry said the growth has fueled "an astonishing increase in micromanagement and direction" from NSC staff, and an "imbalance in the balance of powers constructed by the Constitution," because they are not Senate-confirmed.
"The problem is when those advisoers do more than advise, when they direct and when they in fact get into the operational military chain of command," Thornberry said.
The chamber also approved an amendment aimed at fostering a competition to replace by 2018 the Air Force’s venerable fleet of UH-1N Hueys, which guard US missile sites.
One of the most dramatic moments of the day surrounded a failed amendment — an attempt to require the Pentagon have at least two suppliers for tactical missile engines, if one supplier is foreign. The measure, led by Rep. David McKinley, a Democrat whose West Virginia headquarters district is home to an Orbital ATK office and the Allegheny Ballistics Lab, died by a 213-211 vote.