Recess sets aside several controversial defense issues

Congress will face several controversial defense issues when it returns from the summer recess, beginning with the annual defense spending bill, the industry’s bread and butter.

A crucial test for defense lobbyists, companies and lawmakers alike will be how many earmarks make it into the Senate’s version of the bill. The Senate this year appears to be the only conduit for for-profit firms and their congressional benefactors to add funding for projects the Pentagon has not requested.

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Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who also leads the defense-spending panel, is expected to take up the Pentagon’s fiscal 2011 budget in September.

House Democrats allowed earmarks only for nonprofits, and House Republicans instituted a moratorium on all types, with only a few GOP members breaking that pledge. As a result, pet projects were cut in half in the 2011 spending bill as compared to the previous year, according to an analysis by The Hill and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Conference negotiations with the Senate may be intense over the earmarks, testing the resolve of Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the new defense appropriations chairman, and Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the retiring Appropriations chairman, to keep pet projects only for nonprofits in the final defense bill.

The Senate panel is not expected to approve funding for an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter alternate engine, which the Pentagon does not want and which has prompted a veto threat from administration. That sets up a clash with the House: Dicks couldn’t fend off the second engine’s supporters when his panel approved the 2011 appropriations bill in July. The full House Appropriations panel is also likely to back the $450 million for the GE-Rolls-Royce-made alternate engine.

It’s unclear whether the Pentagon’s 2011 budget will be in place on time — by Oct. 1. Congressional sources have said Congress may not approve the final defense bill before the November elections, forcing a continuing resolution that would fund the department at 2010 levels.

The Senate is also poised to take up the massive defense policy bill in September — usually seen as must-pass legislation because it carries critical policies for the Pentagon, including the yearly authorization for the military’s pay raises and benefits. Perhaps the most polarizing issue this year is the repeal of the Pentagon’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which bans openly gay people from serving in the military.

John McCain (Ariz.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Thursday indicated he would set up hurdles to Democratic leadership efforts to bring up the 2011 defense authorization bill for a vote in September. He opposes repeal of the “Don’t ask” law as well as a provision in his committee’s bill that would repeal the ban on abortions at military hospitals if they are paid for with private funds.

Supporters of the “Don’t ask” repeal are pressing Congress to act while Democrats still hold majorities in both chambers. The defense authorization bill containing the repeal provision is unlikely to move forward in the Senate without 60 votes in favor — a level of support that may be unreachable after the midterms.

Another issue likely to ignite floor debate is a provision mandating that the president deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to the Southwest border. McCain backs the provision — his state of Arizona has seen some of the worst violence related to the drug trade from Mexico — but Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman and the manager of the bill, believes it would be unprecedented for Congress to direct the commander in chief to send troops to a specific location.

Levin has vowed to fight the provision on the floor or in conference negotiations with the House, which did not include such a provision.

Separately, the Obama administration is fighting a $1 billion cut in its $2 billion request for U.S. military training of Iraqi security forces.

“Some of us feel pretty strongly about this issue: that it's time — given the amount of money that Iraq is taking in oil revenue and the fact they cut their own defense budget in half in the parliament — it's kind of hard to justify putting billions of dollars in for the Iraq army,” said Levin, who has vowed to fight the cut, in May.

Conference negotiations with the House may be drawn out too, particularly because Levin is the only one of the Big Four — the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services panels — who supports repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Also, the F-35 alternate engine could keep lawmakers arguing, as was the case last year when the Senate did not include funding for the GE-Rolls-Royce engine.