Senate approves $636B Pentagon bill

The Senate on Tuesday approved a $636 billion Pentagon spending bill after defeating repeated efforts by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to slash funding for the C-17 cargo aircraft.

The bill funds military operations for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. The legislation will now move to a conference with the House, which passed its version in July.

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The bill heeds several budget recommendations made by the Obama administration on high-profile defense programs. The Senate decided not to fund additional Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter jets, and refrained from adding funds for a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a supporter of the second engine, left the door open for restoring funds for the engine in conference negotiations with the House, which added funds. Additionally, the Senate, unlike the House, decided against breathing life into the now-defunct VH-71 presidential helicopter program.

McCain had attacked the C-17 as wasteful spending, targeting $2.5 billion for 10 new C-17 Boeing aircraft. The Obama administration said the additional planes were not needed.

A McCain amendment that would have stripped the money failed on a 30-68 vote. A similar motion by McCain failed last week by a 34-64 vote.

McCain, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, voted against the bill.

McCain had called on the president to threaten to veto the spending bill if it included C-17 money just as he had done with a Defense authorization bill in July that included cash for F-22 fighter jets that the Pentagon said were unnecessary.

But Obama, who expended political capital and become closely involved in some fights over defense spending, did not personally threaten to veto defense bills over funding for the C-17s.

Obama had backed more investment in the military cargo planes as a presidential candidate last year, but he shifted to the other side of the debate after becoming president. His administration, in particular Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the White House Office of Management and Budget, pressed against additional congressional funding for the cargo planes and other programs they saw as wasteful. The Pentagon did not request any funding for the planes in its 2010 budget request.

McCain teamed with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to offer a number of amendments aimed at cutting down earmarks that added up to $2.65 billion of the bill. But the Senate knocked down all of their amendments. Appropriators argued that directing spending to specific projects was Congress's privilege as branch of government equal to the executive branch.

“I welcome any constructive suggestions on how to improve the operations and efficiency in which the committee accomplishes its vital work,” said Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) in response to one amendment. "However, those suggestions should not compromise the constitutional principle that the power of the purse is invested in the Congress."

The Senate adopted an amendment sponsored by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) that would block defense contractors from forcing employees suing for sexual assault or discrimination into arbitration. The amendment was a response to employees of Halliburton and KBR who weren't able to sue their employers because they had contracts required their claims go to arbitration.

The Senate agreed on an amendment sponsored by National Guard supporters Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Their amendment prohibits 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.



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