Week Ahead: Conferees begin work on final Pentagon policy bill

The fate of future Pentagon spending rests in the ability of lawmakers to come up with a deficit-reduction plan or another way around automatic military budget cuts.

So, in an odd way, it’s fitting that the congressional defense committees’ hearing rooms will be dark this week. That’s because it will fall on congressional leadership and the White House to somehow fashion a deal to avoid $600 billion in additional national defense cuts.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) last week publicly urged President Obama to help change the military spending cuts that would be set off under sequestration. And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made several public overtures to Democrats to make a deal that would avoid those new cuts.

While the defense sector will continue searching for clues about what a deal might look like — and when it might be reached — one Washington veteran on Friday suggested a resolution is months away.

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“The votes will not be there until after November,” said Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgeting for the Clinton White House, referring to the coming presidential and congressional elections.

The votes were there for the Senate’s 2012 Pentagon policy bill last Thursday, and word surely will soon begin trickling out of House-Senate negotiations on a final bill.

The two chambers’ bills differ in several ways, including their plans for terrorist detainees, the F-35 fighter program and the JLTV effort. A conference committee will begin work this week on hammering out a final bill.

Budget cuts occupy the top spot on lists of the most pressing national-security issues — at least in Washington. But moving closer to the top every day is Iran and what to do about its defiant efforts to develop a nuclear weapons program.

Members last week blasted the Obama administration for enacting a sanctions-based approach that lawmakers increasingly doubt will halt Iran’s illicit arms efforts before it has a nuclear weapon.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) last week successfully helped shepherd to approval in the upper chamber a bill that requires the imposition of harsh sanctions on the financial sector of Iran, including the Central Bank of Iran, as reprisal for that country’s persistent nuclear program.

On Tuesday, Kirk takes to the podium at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to discuss Washington’s Iran policy.

Kirk’s morning speech is titled: “The Costs of Containing Iran: More Than the U.S. is Bargaining For.”

Another top security issue, Afghanistan, will be the focus on Wednesday morning when a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee examines oversight challenges and remedies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon’s ongoing soup-to-nuts strategy review should have something to say about just how the Marine Corps fits into the future military force mix. Corps brass have already begun moving the Marines back to a “middle-weight force” for quick-response missions after nearly a decade fighting protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that caused the service to venture from its roots.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, assistant Marine Corps commandant, will speak about that topic Wednesday morning at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum.