Defense conferees close to deal on bill

Defense authorizers are on the cusp of announcing a conference agreement on the 2010 defense policy bill.

The final conference report likely will be ready next week—but not before the House formally appoints its conferees on the bill. So far negotiations have taken place informally between the leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services Committee.

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The conference report will answer some long awaited questions, including whether the House this year would accept hate-crimes legislation sponsored by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). The House armed services leaders in the past have rejected similar legislation for fear they would not have the votes to pass the defense bill.

The committees must also resolve whether to authorize funding for a second Joint Strike Fighter engine. Pratt & Whitney and a team of General Electric and Rolls Royce are engaged in an increasingly bitter fight over the funding.

The conferees will also indicate whether they would give a nod to legislation that would prompt the Pentagon to transfer closed military bases to local communities at no cost.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is a strong supporter of that concept, and she has backing from dozens of House lawmakers and senators. However, both the Senate Armed Services panel and the Obama administration oppose the language included in the House bill.

The decision has high stakes for Pelosi. The city of San Francisco, in her district, has been negotiating unsuccessfully with the Navy to obtain Treasure Island, a closed Naval base that property developers are drooling over.

Meanwhile, the Senate could cast a vote on the 2010 defense appropriations bill next week and then head to conference negotiations with the House. There is still a long list of amendments to be considered, including one filed by National Guard supporters Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Their amendment seeks to prohibit the Air Force from retiring tactical aircraft until the Secretary of the Air Force explains to Congress how it plans to fill the gaps that would result.

National Guard supporters fear that the retirements would deplete National Guard units until they are able to receive new aircraft, in particular the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.