Rep. McKeon: Defense authorization bill unlikely to pass in lame-duck session

The incoming Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee might be faced with the weighty task of overseeing passage of the 2011 defense authorization bill early next year. 

Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.), the leading Republican on the military affairs panel and probable new chairman, said Monday that it’s not likely Congress will pass the massive defense policy bill by year’s end. 

The bill has been mired in the debate over repealing the ban on openly gay people serving in the military. Congress is also hampered by a compressed post-election work schedule. 

McKeon, who is not expected to be challenged for the chairmanship of the prestigious Armed Services panel, said he would try to shepherd the 2011 bill to passage early next year. 

“We have a good bill,” he told reporters after a Foreign Policy Initiative conference Monday. But McKeon acknowledged the panel might be racing against another important project: the Pentagon’s release of the 2012 budget request and the congressional hearings it requires. 

McKeon on Monday also laid out some of his priorities as chairman. He indicated he would keep his panel’s tradition of funding a secondary engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and suggested he would fight to protect the new F-35 fleet from any significant cuts. The program has been experiencing delays and cost increases and has garnered rebuke from Senate defense appropriators, who slashed funding for 10 of the fighter jets in the 2011 budget. 

McKeon disputed the notion that the secondary F-35 engine made by General Electric and Rolls Royce is an “earmark” or a pet project. 

“There is so much misunderstanding about earmarks,” McKeon said. He stressed that if funding is added to a bill in an open process, through debate, amendments and votes, and not through behind-the-scenes negotiations between the House and the Senate, it cannot be considered an earmark.   

The funding for the F-35 engine has been a sore point between lawmakers, the White House and the Pentagon. President Obama has threatened to veto any bill that contains funding for the secondary engine.

Both the House defense authorizers and appropriators have approved funding for the GE-Rolls Royce F136 engine. The Senate has not included any funding. None of the bills have been finalized.

While McKeon is committed to keeping money flowing for the GE-Rolls Royce engine, congressional supporters might run into a roadblock during the upcoming weeks in making sure funding for the project does not get interrupted.  

Because Congress has not passed any spending bills this year, lawmakers will likely work to fund the government through another stopgap measure — or continuing resolution — through at least February. 

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued guidance at the end of September that does not allow automatic funding for programs if “either the House or the Senate has reported or passed a bill that provides no funding for an account at the time the CR is enacted.” The GE-Rolls Royce engine is funded only in the House defense authorization and appropriations bills. 

According to the guidance, Defense Secretary Robert Gates would have to request that the OMB release funding for the secondary engine because the Senate did not include any money for it. Gates has made very clear he strongly opposes the alternate engine, and has thrown his commitment behind the primary engine made by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technology Corp.

With a prolonged continuing resolution, congressional supporters of the second engine would have to find a way to bypass the OMB guidance. The Pentagon is expected to ask that no more funds be released for the second engine, and lawmakers may insist on a clean resolution without too many changes and amendments. 

As prospective chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, McKeon said he is opposed to cutting defense spending. 

“Let me put this in the simplest terms possible: Cutting defense spending amidst two wars is a red line for me and should be a red line for all Americans,” McKeon said during his speech at the Foreign Policy Initiative. 

He indicated he would not support any efforts to use $100 billion in savings that Gates is eying for modern weapons systems and the fighting force for deficit reduction or other non-defense initiatives. 

“A defense budget in decline portends an America in decline,” he added. 

McKeon also telegraphed his focus on boosting U.S. missile defense by increasing the numbers of the Navy’s Aegis ships and maintaining the ground interceptors in the United States.

“I view it as the responsibility of the Armed Services Committee, through our annual defense law, to shift funds to higher national security priorities and promising technologies for the future such as missile defense and means to counter anti-access threats,” he said.