GOP senators say funding for military programs can't wait

Republican senators on Tuesday ramped up calls for a full 2011 defense spending measure despite calls for fiscal austerity. 

Several GOP Senate Armed Services Committee members joined senior military officials in pressing congressional leaders to draw up a full defense appropriations bill as soon as this week.

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Republican panel members were especially sharp, pressing U.S. Navy and Marine Corps leaders about whether the ongoing congressional spending standoff will hinder U.S. national security. 

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) suggested failing to enact a 2011 defense appropriations bill would put deployed American troops at risk.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus replied the Navy and Marine Corps should be able to meet all of Washington’s demands in the near term. “The danger is in the future,” he added.

GOP Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.) called for congressional leaders to set aside all other business and bring a defense appropriations bill to the floor of both chambers immediately.

“I don’t see why both chambers can’t fund the military on a permanent basis,” Wicker said. House and Senate leaders should schedule votes on a DoD appropriations bill “this week or next week” and then return to other budgetary matters, he added.

For Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the worries about not giving the Pentagon a yearlong spending measure are increased costs and the potential shedding of jobs as the American economy continues to struggle.

Defense officials have warned Congress for weeks that without a 2011 appropriations bill of at least $540 billion, they will be forced to take several actions. Those include: avoiding awarding contracts for work on major weapon programs; skipping maintenance on warships and aircraft; and laying off workers at some facilities.

On the latter point, Collins warned up to 10,000 jobs would be “put at risk.”

Some congressional proponents of a yearlong continuing resolution to fund the military say “it will save money,” Collins said. But she is siding with defense officials in predicting costs would rise.

“Operating under a continuing resolution for a full year at the [fiscal] 2010 level would have negative effects on our fleet, on the ship and aviation industrial base, and on the many workers who support naval facilities,” said Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations.

“Without relief, we will procure only one Virginia-class submarine and break the [existing] multiyear contract,” Roughead said. What’s more, an existing pact with surface shipbuilders “precludes us from awarding any DDG-51 [destroyers] in FY 2011 unless [two] ships are appropriated.”

Joining the GOP senators and military officials in calling for quick action on a full 2011 spending bill was Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

“Delaying the final appropriations [bill] for 2011 has already had a negative effect on readiness,” Levin said.

The Armed Services Committee’s 2011 defense authorization bill added $60 million for aircraft maintenance and another $34 million for work on ships, Levin said.

The chamber’s Appropriations Committee has matched that amount in its version of 2011 defense spending legislation, but the Senate has yet to vote on that bill.

“Without a final fiscal year 2011 appropriation act to match … [the] additional resources for readiness, the Navy readiness posture is in great jeopardy,” Levin warned. Five times this fiscal year, the Navy has deemed a ship unavailable, a figure that will only climb without an appropriations bill, he added.

Separately, McCain pressed Roughead and Mabus on the Navy’s decision last year to keep alive two industry versions of the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The service previously had planned to choose one design.

McCain supported the service’s scuttled plan to move to one design.

He called the reversal a “snap decision,” adding later that “it’s this kind of thing that enormously erodes the Navy’s credibility” on acquisition programs.

An emotional McCain then told Mabus forcefully: “We’ll see, Mr. Secretary. We’ll see” who was right about the most cost-effective LCS plan.

Minutes later, Mabus told the panel that keeping alive two industry teams longer than planned will inject competition and save the Navy around $2.9 billion.

On the Marine Corps’s troubled F-35B effort, McCain asked Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos to report to lawmakers “every two months” about ongoing attempts to right that initiative.

The Navy officials all said they remain committed to the B variant, telling the committee they are closely monitoring cost and weight — as well as other technical — problems on that version of the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 fighter.

The Pentagon and nine U.S. allies also are buying two other versions for air and naval use that have experienced technical problems.

Amos told the panel he has seen ample progress in recent months.

“My sense is things are lined up for success,” the commandant said. “We’re on a good glide path with the weight. … They’re not going to add one pound without me knowing it.”