Defense appropriations bill comes as calendar crowded by healthcare debate

Defense appropriations bill comes as calendar crowded by healthcare debate

The House is likely to vote on the final 2010 defense appropriations bill by midweek, putting the ball in the Senate’s court, where scheduling a vote could be more complicated because of the healthcare debate.

Even though conferees have not formally been appointed, House and Senate negotiators finalized the differences in the 2010 defense appropriations bill on Friday afternoon. Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee, said on Friday afternoon that there were no more outstanding issues on the defense part of the bill.

Now, House Democrats are working to include an increase in the debt ceiling as well as additional funding for increased unemployment benefits, COBRA health insurance, food stamps and Medicaid. The $636 billion Pentagon spending bill will likely also be the vehicle for the extension of the Patriot Act.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Hill that he would try to have the bill passed in the Senate as soon as possible.

“I want to go home for Christmas,” Inouye said.

There is still a possibility that appropriators have to craft another continuing resolution to fund the Defense Department until the Senate can agree on a time to vote on the bill. The Pentagon is currently funded through a continuing resolution that expires Dec. 18.

If they don’t appoint official conferees, the way the House and Senate could take up the $636 billion defense bill with the additional legislation is by using the Senate version of the bill as a shell. Appropriators would strip out the contents of the Senate bill and fill in the negotiated defense bill as well as the additional provisions. By doing it that way, it ensures that the bill won’t be open to amendments in the Senate.

As Congress takes up the Defense bill, another issue is likely to engulf the Texas and Wisconsin delegations next week. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is expected to issue an opinion on a protest filed by BAE Systems, which lost out on a lucrative military truck contract to Oshkosh, based in Wisconsin. Another company, Navistar, also filed a protest, but all eyes are on the tug-of-war between BAE and Oshkosh.

The GAO is expected to reach its decision to uphold or reject BAE’s protest on Monday. Either way, the decision is likely to inflame one of the two delegations. BAE, the incumbent contractor for the so-called Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV), builds the trucks in Sealy, Texas.

The two Texas senators are already threatening to hold up the nomination of the Army’s new acquisition chief, Malcolm Ross O’Neill, unless the Army reconsiders its position on the FMTV contract. The Senate is expected to hold a confirmation hearing for O’Neill, a former Lockheed Martin executive, on Thursday.

However, the Wisconsin delegation, which has thrown its full support behind Oshkosh, is not likely to go down without a fight.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates in October, the delegation, which boasts powerful House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), lashed out at critics of the Army contract, worth an estimated $3 billion.