Fights over budget, same-sex marriage, missile sites loom on Defense bill

As the Senate Armed Services Committee passed the Defense authorization bill out of committee this week, it offered the first concrete look at where the Senate will do battle with the House over Defense issues this year.

The debate will have an added dose of drama this year because the Defense bill is getting sucked into a broader fight on the size and shape of the budget in the midst of a presidential election year.

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There are also a host of contentious policies where the two chambers disagree, including provisions on same-sex marriage, abortion and a new East Coast missile defense site.

But the marquee issue between the Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate is shaping up to be the overall size of the Defense budget.

The House passed-bill authorized a Pentagon budget that was nearly $4 billion higher than both President Obama’s budget request and the bill passed by the Senate panel.

The House legislation aligns itself with the budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which increases defense and cuts non-defense discretionary spending over the next decade, restoring a chunk of the Pentagon’s $487 billion budget cut due to the Budget Control Act.

Ryan’s plan has drawn a rebuke from President Obama and has become part of the presidential campaign, with presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney promising bigger defense budgets if he’s elected president.

Looming over the current-year budget fight is the threat of sequestration, an automatic cut to both defense and non-defense spending that would chop $500 billion out of the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years.

The House passed an amendment to its Defense authorization bill that replaced the sequester through Ryan’s reconciliation plan — something the Senate has rejected and Obama has threatened to veto.

Beyond the budget numbers, the two chambers will have to hash out a number of differences, particularly on social issues and missile defense.

The House bill banned same-sex marriage ceremonies on military bases and included conscious provisions for military chaplains, while the Senate bill allows the Pentagon to fund abortions in the case of rape or incest.  Currently only cases where a woman’s life is in danger are allowed.

One congressional House aide specializing in Defense suggested that the social provisions may effectively cancel each other out in conference committee, particularly if the two sides are looking to make a deal and get the bill through.

But another issue that the House pushed on missile defense — a new East Coast missile interceptor — looks to be in trouble in the Senate.

The House included $100 million to begin implementing an East Coast missile site by 2016, but the Senate only included language for an assessment. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Senate’s ranking member, said this week that he was “skeptical” about the necessity of the site.

On issues that are less partisan-driven, the $4 billion gap between the House and Senate could increase tension in conference committee because there will be a limited amount of money to move around.

One prime example is the RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 drone, which the Pentagon terminated this year on the grounds that it cost too much money and the older, manned U-2 plane could do the same job.

The House blocked the Pentagon from retiring the drones, but the Senate panel kept them terminated, using the $545 million saved to help fund other programs.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t reluctance in the Senate about the program, particularly among Republicans.

Several Republicans questioned the decision when Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz testified in Congress, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said the decision was “fascinating.”

“This is 2012 and we're talking about how a manned aircraft can do a better job than a drone through now and 2040,” Graham said. “It doesn't make common sense to me.”

There are several issues where fights are brewing — but the two congressional committees are aligned against the Pentagon.

The biggest issue is proposed Pentagon cuts to the Air National Guard of 5,100 personnel and 134 aircraft. Both the House and Senate rejected the cuts altogether amid a concerted lobbying push from state governors.

“There was a broad feeling in the committee that the Air Force did not have a basis that was solid for where they were making these reductions,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Thursday.

Both chambers also firmly rejected two more rounds of base closures that the Pentagon had requested, and they stopped proposed increases to TRICARE health fees.

The Senate Armed Services Committee also followed the House in restricting the Defense Department’s biofuels initiatives, although that narrowly passed in committee on a 13-12 roll-call vote.

The House has finished its Defense authorization bill, while the Senate bill still has to go through the Senate floor. Levin said the bill could hit the floor in June or July, and both committee heads hope to have the Defense authorization legislation — which has passed for 50 years straight — signed into law before the election.

But there’s one big issue remaining for the Senate floor that could change the calculus of conference committee negotiations: indefinite detention. The issue nearly derailed the bill last year, after there were provisions included mandating the military detention of terrorist suspects.

Senators who oppose indefinite detention are waiting until the floor debate to try to change last year’s bill, as they look to carve out stronger exceptions for U.S. citizens.

A similar effort on the House floor from Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) failed, and opponents in the Senate will have an uphill fight against Levin, who is opposed to changing last year’s detention provisions in the authorization bill.