Conference committee agrees to final $633B defense authorization bill

The House and Senate agreed to a $633.3 billion defense authorization bill Tuesday, resolving a number of contentious policy divisions and paving the way for the legislation’s passage this week.

The heads of the House and Senate Armed Services panels emerged from a weeklong conference committee with the final bill, which includes new sanctions against Iran, a mandate for the Pentagon to study a potential East Coast missile defense site and compromise language on military detention of U.S. citizens.

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The conference report also removed several contentious policy provisions that were in either the House or Senate bills: a prohibition on the military’s use of biofuels, a ban on same-sex marriage ceremonies on military bases and an open-ended restriction on transferring Guantanamo detainees to the United States.

The White House had threatened to veto both the House and Senate versions of the legislation, but Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters that he saw no potential issues in the measure that would cause President Obama to veto the final bill.

The legislation still includes some aspects the Obama administration will object to, including rolling back cuts to the Air National Guard, stopping some proposed fee increases for Tricare and killing funding for the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS).

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said the bill will go to the House floor on Thursday, and it is expected to pass the Senate and be sent to the president’s desk by Friday. The bill typically passes both chambers with wide bipartisan margins.

The House and Senate had to resolve the overall top-line figure for the bill, ultimately settling on a compromise to authorize $527.5 billion in base Pentagon spending. The legislation also includes $88.5 billion to fund the war in Afghanistan and roughly $17.3 billion in Department of Energy nuclear funding.

On Iranian sanctions, defense conferees declined to comply with the Obama administration’s request to broaden the criteria for countries that would be exempt from the political and economic limitations imposed on Iran. 

“It is incumbent on us to impose the maximum pressure upon Iran,” Levin said. 

However, House and Senate lawmakers did agree to extend the White House’s timeline to impose the new round of sanctions against Iran over its controversial nuclear enrichment program. 

But Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) remained unconvinced1 this latest round of sanctions will push Tehran to the negotiating table. 

“We all know Iran continued unabated on the path to nuclear weapons,” McCain said, noting that Iran continues on that pace despite the efforts of the White House and Congress to put the squeeze on its nuclear program. 

Aside from Iran and missile defense, congressional conferees included language calling for the DOD to provide a report on potential military options should the civil war in Syria bubble over into a regional conflict. 

The reporting requirement “is [not] any kind of declaration of war, but it does inform Congress” should the decision come on whether to take military action against government forces loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, McCain said. 

While eyeing possible options for Syria, lawmakers also took measures to prevent the type of terrorist attack that ended with the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. 

Defense conferees included language to add 1,000 Marines to the Pentagon’s embassy security force, assigned to protect American diplomatic outposts across the globe. 

Lawmakers also opted to prohibit retirements of the Global Hawk Block 30 unmanned aircraft, requiring the Air Force to continue to operate the Global Hawk through the end of 2014. 

They also increased funding for the M1 Abrams tank by $135 million above what DOD requested for the program. The plus-up “is intended to delay the shutdown of the Abrams line based on members’ desire to provide upgraded tanks” to reserve and active-duty forces. 

While the committee agreed somewhat to a compromise offered last month by the Pentagon on Air Guard cuts, conferees also mandated the Air Force retain an additional 32 C-130 or C-27J tactical airlift aircraft to meet the Army’s combat airlift requirements, going against the service’s wishes to purge those planes from the Air Force fleet.

The conferees reached a compromise on detainee language in the final bill — which had been the most contentious part of the debate in the Senate. 

They removed an amendment from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that had said U.S. citizens could not be held under military detention indefinitely, instead stating that nothing in either last year’s defense authorization bill or the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) would prevent the constitutional rights of those captured on U.S. soil from being infringed upon.

This might partially satisfy both sides of the detention debate because they interpret court rulings differently over the 2001 AUMF and whether it allows the detention of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism.

On the East Coast missile site, the Armed Services panels decided to instruct the Pentagon to study the potential of three different sites and conduct an environmental impact study. They removed House language that would have mandated the construction of a site by 2015.

Two of those sites would be located on the Eastern Seaboard, according to Levin.

When it came to often-heated social issues, the conference committee removed House language that banned same-sex ceremonies on military bases and modified a conscience objection provision for military chaplains. The conference committee also kept an amendment from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) that allows military insurance to cover the cost of abortions in the case of rape or incest.

Both the House and Senate passed language on Afghanistan withdrawal — the Senate calling for an acceleration and the House wanting to maintain current levels until 2014 — but those provisions were essentially taken out of the final bill.