Senate rolls out $514B defense policy bill

The leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday unveiled a $514 billion defense bill that differs in several ways from the version approved by the House.

Most notably, the Senate bill includes no money for the Overseas Contingency Fund (OCO) that pays for operations in Afghanistan. The House gave about $80 billion to the fund.

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Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman, said the Senate included no money because the administration has not made a specific funding request.

The Senate measure, which was approved in a 25-1 panel vote, backs the Pentagon’s proposal for a 1 percent pay raise for troops. That’s lower than the 1.8 percent required under current law. The bill adopted by the full House was silent on the issue.

The Senate bill mirrors its House counterpart by junking the department’s plan to save $2 billion by consolidating TRICARE, the family healthcare plan for military families and slashing millions in direct subsidies to commissaries. But like the House legislation, it also requires soldiers to kick in more for housing costs 

Unlike the House bill, it also authorizes commissaries to sell “generic” products that could lower costs for the government.

Levin predicted the panel’s tweaks to compensation and healthcare would yield $1.8 billion in savings in fiscal 2015 and  $30 billion over the next five years.

The panel agreed with the House to reject the administration’s request to conduct a new round of base closures in 2017.

The budget blueprint includes $320 million to keep the Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft fleet flying at least another year, according to Levin.

The panel offset the cost of keeping the attack plane, commonly known as the “Warthog,” by not paying for new wings for the 283-plane fleet. It also takes money from “under-executing personnel” programs and anticipates savings from end strength cuts to the armed services, Levin said.

He did not specify which programs were underperforming but said the committee had consulted the Government Accountability Office to identify them.

The House also saves the A-10, but by withdrawing $635 million from OCO funding, something rejected by Levin.

The Senate panel also differed from the House by authorizing only $650 million to refuel and authorize the U.S.S. George Washington, as opposed to the nearly $800 million adopted by the lower chamber.

The Pentagon wants to cut an aircraft carrier to save money, but Levin said the Senate panel believed it would be “unacceptably wasteful to retire a multibillion ship” before it has reached the end of its service life. The bill authorizes the Navy secretary to raid other “under-executing” accounts to keep the nuclear carrier alive, he added without providing specifics.

Senators also approved a Navy plan to set aside 11 active cruisers for modernization, a move House lawmakers explicitly nixed. Levin’s committee approved the purchase of three littoral combat ships, as opposed to the House’s two.

The proposed bill also backs the creation of an independent National Commission on the Future of the Army to examine possible structural changes to the services and its Guard and Reserve forces, including the transfer of Apache helicopters between the branches.

In a “significant” departure from the House’s roadmap, and even the committee’s previous legislation, the policy bill includes a provision that would allow the Defense secretary to moves detainees from the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States, Levin said.

However, the provision, offered by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) stipulates that President Obama first must provide lawmakers with a plan detailing the security measures that would be put in place to make such transfers. If members do not approve of the plan, they would have the opportunity to vote it down, but Obama could then override their objections with a veto.

Levin said the measure “created a path to close Guantanamo,” though it also blocks any transfers to Yemen.

The measure incorporates roughly 14 provisions to address sexual assault in the military, including reforms championed earlier this year by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

The defense policy bill contains a provision that authorizes the Defense Department to train and equip “carefully selected” rebels in Syria and allows for the transfer of certain kinds of equipment, according to Levin. What equipment is not specified in the bill, he added.