House passes $585B defense bill

The House on Thursday passed a Defense authorization bill to equip the Pentagon with funding and programs for fiscal 2015.

It passed in a largely bipartisan vote, 300-119. The legislation now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to be approved next week before the end of the lame-duck session.

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The $585 billion measure is the product of weeks of talks between the House and Senate Armed Services committees. The House passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) earlier this year, while the Senate never brought one to the floor.

The NDAA is one of the few pieces of legislation that has always been renewed on time, with Congress passing it for 52 consecutive years.

This year's negotiated bill was named after the retiring chairmen of the armed services committees: Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). 

It authorizes $521 billion in base discretionary spending for Defense Department activities, as well as $64 billion for overseas contingency operations.

One of the most controversial aspects of the bill is its inclusion of a variety of public land and energy provisions, including designating new national parks and wilderness areas, speeding the permit process for oil and gas drilling, and measures related to energy and minerals.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called the provisions an "extreme land grab" that would restrict more than half a million acres of land from productive use. 

“With the military’s shrinking budget, it is offensive that this bill would be used to fund congressional pork,” Cruz said in a Wednesday statement.

The bill also reduces benefits for troops and their families. It would raise the copay by $3 for most pharmaceuticals under Tricare, the military health insurance plan. 

It would also keep pay raises at 1 percent, freeze raises for general and flag officers, and reduce housing subsidies by 1 percent. The bill also cuts subsidies for military commissaries, where troops buy groceries, by $100 million. 

Although the cuts did not go as far as the Pentagon and Senate Armed Services Committee wanted, they are a blow to military family advocates who had lobbied against any cuts. 

The bill also sought a compromise on some platforms, such as the A-10 aircraft, which the Pentagon is seeking to retire but has strong support from lawmakers who oppose its grounding. 

The bill permits the Air Force to move 36 of the fighter jets into "backup inventory" status, that would keep the plans active but reduce their flying time, pending a review by the Pentagon. It also allows the Air Force to move some maintenance personnel from the A-10 to other airframes. 

The bill approves several important White House initiatives in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

It extends authority to the president for a plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, an authorization which lawmakers took a separate vote on in September before their recess. 

In addition, the measure authorizes $6.6 billion for operations against ISIS, including the deployment of 1,500 more U.S. forces and to train and equip Iraqi security forces for two years. 

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) tried to put forward amendments to block arming Syrians and ban the use of ground forces for combat in Iraq, but the House Rules Committee decided against allowing any amendments on the House floor. 

"They should not be tucked into a huge Defense authorization bill that doesn't allow for any amendment," Van Hollen told The Hill on Wednesday. 

But Rep. Adam SmithAdam SmithThe case for moral capitalism Armed Services leaders encouraged after first conference meeting Dems urge treaty ratification after South China Sea ruling MORE (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the provisions didn't amount to a full-scale war authorization because they only allow training for local allies.

"I really wish to emphasize that the train-and-equip mission is just that. It in no way, shape, manner or form authorizes the use of military force," Smith said. 

At the conclusion of debate, McKeon delivered an emotional farewell speech to the House chamber as he thanked his family and staff.

"To this great body and to our troops, wherever you may be, may God bless you and keep you," McKeon said. "And now, for hopefully the last time, I yield back the balance of my time."

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