House likely to move defense bill; Senate plans less clear

The House likely will approve the final 2010 Pentagon-spending bill by the end of next week, without additional money to cover President Barack Obama’s new U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan.

House leaders hope to pass the bill’s conference report by Dec. 18, according to a House leadership aide. The final bill will not include money to fund the additional 33,000 troops Obama plans to deploy to Afghanistan in coming months, the aide added.

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The situation is less clear in the Senate, which is engrossed in the healthcare debate, but it’s possible that chamber will follow suit, a Senate leadership aide said.

Senators could make time for a vote on the defense appropriations conference report because conference reports are considered privileged, the Senate aide said.

Details of how Congress will handle the must-pass defense bill for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1 emerged Monday as the Obama administration continued to try to figure out how to finance the president’s new war plan.

If Congress does not pass the appropriations bill, it will have to resort to another continuing resolution to fund the military until January, when lawmakers are expected to return from their Christmas break. The continuing resolution could provide authority for the start of new programs.

The Defense Department is currently funded at fiscal 2009 levels through a continuing resolution until Dec. 18 — next Friday.

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy told The Hill on Monday morning that the plans of how to fund the troop increase are still “to be determined.” Flournoy said that trying to include the additional money, which the Pentagon estimates at about $35 billion, in the 2010 defense bill is one option, while an emergency supplemental next year is another.

Flournoy made the case for the Afghanistan strategy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on Monday morning.

The Office of Management and Budget did not return a request for comment by press time.

Top House and Senate appropriators, including Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) and Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), don’t like the idea of including extra money in the 2010 bill, versions of which both chambers have already approved. The 2010 defense appropriations bill will include $130 billion for overseas contingency operations, the amount the Obama administration requested earlier this year. Lawmakers are also eyeing the must-pass defense bill as the vehicle for an increase to the national debt level.

Lawmakers would like to give high visibility over providing additional funds for the troop increase rather than have them rolled into a conference report that would not get much debate. Inouye said last month that he would like to give the defense authorizers the chance to consider and debate any additional request for Afghanistan war money.

Congress would debate a new war supplemental request next spring — close to next year’s midterm elections.

Flournoy defended Obama’s plan at the conservative AEI, stating that the new strategy should cause concern for the Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan, who now have to face an additional 37,000 U.S. and NATO coalition troops, instead of a troop withdrawal.

“Strategically, they have to be worried,” Flournoy said. “If we are successful in reversing the momentum, they will start losing their foot soldiers in droves. They have to be very worried.”

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Besides facing increased U.S. forces and a new show of resolve and commitment from the U.S. and its allies, the Taliban and al Qaeda also face greater pressure “than ever before” from the Pakistani military, Flournoy said.

Flournoy said the U.S. hopes 7,000 additional troops contributed by NATO allies will arrive in the first half of 2010, “if possible.”

“We are still working together to actually get them into the force flow,” Flournoy told  the AEI audience.

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