Defense bill barrels toward vote

After a relatively quiet recess on the defense industry front, September will be full of defense discourse and controversy.

Senate defense appropriators will kick off the first week back in session with the markup of the 2010 defense appropriations bill. That markup is scheduled for Sept. 9. The bill is expected to make its way through full committee on Sept. 10.

The Hill has learned that Senate leadership aims to have a floor vote the week of Sept. 14 so that the two chambers can negotiate a conference report on the massive Pentagon funding bill. The House passed its version of the bill before the August recess. By press time, the full-committee action and floor schedule for the defense bill had not been officially announced.

The 2010 defense spending bill could also become the vehicle for several other agency spending bills, becoming what aides like to call a “mini-bus” instead of an omnibus, a bill that would carry all spending bills.

The defense bill, which is viewed as a must-pass by Oct.1 — when fiscal 2010 starts — will also be the vehicle for a continuing resolution to fund several agencies (those that don’t make it on the mini-bus) at fiscal 2009 levels until Congress passes all the 2010 appropriations bills.

Aides and defense insiders widely expect the 2010 defense appropriations bill not to contain funding for more Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter jets after the Senate took President Barack Obama’s veto threat on the 2010 defense authorization bill seriously.

But the discourse over an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter likely will intensify because lawmakers in both chambers have traditionally favored competition on engines for major fighter jet programs, such as the multi-national, multi-service F-35.

Obama has threatened a veto over funding for the alternate engine built by General Electric and Rolls-Royce. However the threat of a veto is not as direct and as personal as it was over the F-22. The Office of Management and Budget said that senior advisers would recommend a veto if they find that funding the second engine jeopardizes the F-35 program overall.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates in recent days has stepped up his case for not funding the second engine.

While the rhetoric over the Pentagon’s funding for 2010 will be intense, it will be underscored by a difficult fall for the Obama administration on the war in Afghanistan. The debate over sending more troops to secure Afghanistan likely will dominate the television airwaves. A growing number of Democrats want to see a plan for withdrawal from a conflict that is losing U.S. public support.

Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, this week attempted to stave off a political storm over the administration’s Afghanistan strategy, arguing that Obama’s Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy introduced in March needs to be given some time to work.

Another politically tenuous situation will be the future of the Air Force’s new air refueling tanker contract. Boeing and its supporters may take full advantage of a World Trade Organization ruling over whether Airbus received illegal government subsidies for building its commercial airliners. Apart from being bitter rivals on the commercial market, Boeing and Airbus (through parent company EADS, which partnered with Northrop Grumman) are going head to head over the $35 billion tanker contract.

Details of the confidential ruling will start seeping out over the next few days and if it is good news for Boeing, the company’s supporters are sure to trump up the ruling publicly. The office of the U.S. Trade Representative acknowledged Friday that the U.S. government received the ruling, but was still reviewing more than 1,000 pages.

The Pentagon is in the process of releasing a draft request for proposals, which Gates promised to share with lawmakers. His decision to do so is expected to stir up a political storm with Boeing and Northrop Grumman supporters on Capitol Hill trying to influence the process.