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House, Senate Face Off Over Defense Bill

Politico.com - May 30, 2012, By Austin Wright

Election-year politics and a looming lame-duck showdown over taxes and spending threaten a long-standing tradition: For the past 50 years, Congress has passed an annual defense authorization bill, setting parameters and priorities for Pentagon spending.

This year’s bill may prove to be one of the most daunting.

The nation’s mounting debt and persistent congressional gridlock could make some of the differences between the bill approved by the Republican-controlled House and the one making its way through the Democratic-controlled Senate all but impossible to reconcile.

Still, some members remain optimistic. “The Armed Services Committee may be the last bastion of bipartisanship remaining in this Congress,” Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate committee, told reporters last week.

Here’s a survey of the congressional battlefield:

The big number

President Barack Obama’s plans for a downsized military will be under attack as the House and Senate spar over the size of the Pentagon’s budget.

The Senate bill, approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee last week and expected to be considered on the floor within the next few weeks, lines up with the president’s budget request, while the House follows the fiscal plan put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said: “We’re within the Pentagon’s budget — $631.4 billion — unlike the House of Representatives, which was about $4 billion over the president’s budget request.”

That $4 billion represents less than 1 percent of the Pentagon’s overall budget. Still, the difference in the cost of the two bills is likely to be one of the major sticking points once the competing measures reach a joint House and Senate conference committee for reconciliation, said Todd Harrison, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“The House is more concerned about the top line and keeping it higher than the president’s request,” he said. “Going into an election year, they don’t want to be seen as underfunding defense.”

The Senate, for its part, will be reluctant to deviate from the president’s numbers.

The difference between the two bills, Harrison added, pales in comparison to the billions of dollars in automatic cuts, called sequestration, that are set to begin taking effect next year. “Those would represent a 10 percent cut,” he said.

Civilian cuts

The top contributor to the $4 billion difference is the Senate plan to reduce the Pentagon’s civilian workforce.

The Senate committee bill, which will be open for amendments on the floor, calls on the Defense Department to cut its number of civilian workers and service contractors by 5 percent over five years. Under the House bill, the workforce would remain intact.

McCain called the provision “one of the most important things we did,” noting the number of civilian Defense Department employees has grown 16 percent since 2007. The proposed reductions would save about $5 billion, he said.

Already, though, House Republicans are questioning the plan. “The Senate is shirking its responsibility,” Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) told POLITICO. An across-the-board cut in the civilian workforce, he said, is a sneaky way to stay within the cost limits put forward by the president while avoiding tough decisions.

“The House took a dutiful look to identify areas that we could responsibly cut,” he said.

East Coast missile shield

The House bill allocates $100 million to start planning an East Coast missile shield — one of the most controversial provisions so far. The Senate committee bill rejects the plan — setting the stage for a showdown on the Senate floor or in conference.

The White House, which has issued a statement threatening to veto the House bill, said plans for the shield are premature. And several House Democrats mounted a push last month to strike funding for the shield. Led by Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), they blasted the plan as wasteful, accusing the GOP of fear-mongering.

Still, Turner and other Republicans who back the proposal maintain the shield is necessary in case Iran develops the capability to fire a missile across the Atlantic. “I believe that events and debate will prove we are right,” said Turner, adding a nuclear Iran could lead to an arms race in the region. “I do believe that the Senate will ultimately and responsibly adopt this measure.”

Social issues

Provisions dealing with abortion and gay marriage are likely to draw heated rhetoric on both sides of the aisle.

Under the Senate committee bill, the Defense Department would be required to provide abortions in cases of rape and incest. Currently, the military provides abortions to service members only when the mother’s life is in danger.

The provision was part of an amendment pushed in committee by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). It passed 16-10 with the support of McCain and several other Republicans.

“Civilian women who depend on the federal government for health insurance — whether they are postal workers or Medicaid recipients — have the right to access affordable abortion care if they are sexually assaulted,” Shaheen explained in a statement. “It is only fair that the thousands of brave women in uniform fighting to protect our freedoms are treated the same.”

Nonetheless, the provision is sure to face fierce opposition in the Senate and — if it survives the floor debate — from conservative House Republicans, who will be pushing their own provisions dealing with social issues.

The House bill includes two gay marriage provisions. One would bar gay marriages on military bases, and the other would further clarify that chaplains are allowed to abstain from performing gay marriage ceremonies.

The Global Hawk

The Senate Armed Services Committee and the House agree on reversing a number of cuts proposed by Obama, including his plan to shut down production of the M1 Abrams tank and to reduce the size of the Air National Guard.

The two chambers, however, aren’t on the same page on the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a surveillance drone produced by Northrop Grumman. The House reversed Obama’s plan to retire the aircraft, while the Senate committee backed it.

The White House, for its part, fired back at House Republicans, saying in a statement that “retaining large numbers of under-resourced aircraft in the fleet in today’s fiscally constrained environment would significantly increase the risk of a hollow force.”

 

The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.

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