Congress revving up for busy defense week

Congress will tackle a defense-heavy agenda this week with debates on Pentagon spending and policy, missile defense strategy and the contentious missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The conference on the 2010 defense policy bill could conclude this week. Staff are slated to work through the weekend and the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are expected to meet on Tuesday to iron out some big differences.

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Among the biggest is the decision whether to fund a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The House authorized funding the second engine built by General Electric and Rolls-Royce, but the Senate did not. Complicating the issue, however, is the fact that Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services panel, supports the development of the second engine and has never made that a secret. His Republican counterpart Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has made it very clear he does not, nor does the administration.

President Barack Obama has yet to signal if he would veto the 2010 defense authorization and appropriations bills over the second engine, as he did when he wrote a personal letter vowing to veto the bills over the F-22.

The Office of Management and Budget has issued a statement of administration policy largely in support of the Senate’s 2010 defense appropriations bill now under consideration on the floor.

But the Obama administration is raising strong objections to funding for 10 more of Boeing C-17 cargo aircraft, which it has not requested. The White House may get some help on the issue as Levin and McCain may seek to strike the money through an amendment.

The Obama administration is pressing the Senate to leave the war-funding request intact and stressed that it needs the $900 million the appropriators cut out of the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund

“Accelerating the growth in size and capability of the Afghanistan National Security Forces is a key component of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan,” OMB said in its statement Friday. “The president's full request reflects his commanders' plan for Afghan forces to assume a greater share of responsibility for security as quickly as possible.” Several senior Democrats in the Senate, most notably Levin, are pushing for accelerating and increasing the number of Afghanistan security forces.

Senators are still considering amendments to file to the bill and it will likely be a busy week after they return to work on Tuesday. Missile defense always has been a topic of amendments, but funding for the war in Afghanistan could also become fodder for floor debate.

Supporters of the National Guard will also attempt to prevent the Air Force from retiring its tactical aircraft until the service has clear answers on how it will address aircraft shortfalls and ensure that units, in particular National Guard ones which fly older planes, would not remain without a mission and essentially be shut down. The House defense appropriations bill has a similar provision prohibiting retirement of tactical aircraft.

Meanwhile, the House Armed Services panel is planning to hear from the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, on the status of U.S. efforts in Iraq. The panel also will probe members of the Obama administration from the Missile Defense Agency, Pentagon and State Department over new missile defense plans in Europe.

Not to be discounted from the busy defense week on Capitol Hill are the discussions and rhetoric over the Air Force’s new competition to replace its old tankers. The competitors and lawmakers are reviewing a draft of the request for proposals and will get ready to comment on it.