Defense bill in for easier ride this year

The partisan battles that nearly derailed two Defense authorization bills appear to have subsided as lawmakers get down to work on this year’s version.

In 2010 and 2011, passage of the Defense bill came down to the wire amid bitter fights over “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the DREAM Act and terror detainees. 

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This time around, the biggest defense fight of the year in Congress is looming after the Defense authorization bill is complete: the sequestered spending cuts set to hit the Pentagon in 2013.

There will undoubtedly be skirmishes as the House Armed Services Committee marks up the Defense authorization bill, but Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told The Hill he’s optimistic the bill can get passed before Congress recesses for the November election.

“This should be done before the election, before we leave town,” McKeon said Friday, adding he’s discussed that goal with Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

That’s not to say that there won’t be robust debate and disagreement over the bill, or that the legislation isn’t at risk of getting stuck in a political floor fight. But the authorization bill, which has a streak of passing for 50 straight years, looks to be returning to its more normal course in Congress following the beginning of markups on Thursday.

Last year’s authorization bill stalled when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) objected to provisions for detaining terror suspects indefinitely and didn’t move it on the floor. A compromise was eventually struck between Levin and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.), but the White House took objection with that and threatened to veto before some language was watered down and the bill was passed in December.

The defense bill was in the most jeopardy in 2010, as robust debates over ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and passing the DREAM Act on immigration pushed passage back to Dec. 22.

This year, key lawmakers on defense are focused on sequestration, the $500 billion in automatic cuts to defense that are set to take effect January 2013. The cuts would begin in the middle of the 2013 fiscal year, but the authorization and appropriations bills in Congress this year aren’t expected to address the issue, just as the Pentagon’s 2013 budget did not.

If sequestration went into effect, the Pentagon’s budget would be reduced by more than $50 billion in 2013. Most people expect it won’t get resolved until the lame-duck session after the election, at the earliest.

McKeon, who has pushed passage of his bill to delay sequestration one year by cutting the federal workforce, told The Hill he “doubts” his bill will become part of the authorization legislation.

“Most people on both sides of the aisle are concerned about how we’re going to handle the sequester — that comes after this,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. “This bill does not reflect any recognition that sequester is in sight. I’m not sure that’s realistic, but that’s where we are.”

The biggest issue in the authorization bill is the $487 billion cut to the Pentagon’s budget over the next 10 years that’s already in place. Republicans have criticized the cuts, and McKeon said in a speech this week that he wants to restore some of the funding reductions that the Pentagon is planning.

McKeon’s defense bill comes in at $554.2 billion, about $3.6 billion higher than the president’s request. The Senate is expected to budget to a lower number that will have to be reconciled in conference committee.

Beyond the overall size of the budget, Bartlett named two issues that are always thorny: missile defense and social issues. 

“I’ve been here 19 years, this will be my 20th mark-up, and we’ve never had a markup without a lot of amendments on these issues,” Bartlett said.

Missile defense is likely to be one of the most contentious debates between Democrats and Republicans. The mark from Strategic Forces subcommittee chairman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) wanted the Pentagon to install a third missile-interceptor site on the East Coast by the end of 2015, and McKeon said Wednesday the administration’s funding for missile defense was “woefully inadequate.”

In her statement before the mark-up Thursday, ranking member Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) questioned the need for a “costly” East Coast missile site. She said she was concerned about increasing funding for nuclear weapons while cutting National Nuclear Security Administration employees.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member, told The Hill he expects this year’s bill would be less contentious. He predicted many of the biggest debates would likely be the perennial battles between the Pentagon and Congress, as the House bill took issue with a number of planned cutbacks from the Defense Department.

The House legislation blocks the retirement of 18 Global Hawk Block 30 drones, which the Pentagon says would save $2.5 billion over 5 years, and keeps three of the four cruisers that had been slated to retire early in 2013.

The bill also does not authorize two new rounds of base closures that the Pentagon had requested.

Another issue that does not fall on partisan lines is funding for the National Guard, where not only Congress but also the Council of Governors have both lobbied for the Pentagon to scrap proposed cuts to the Air Guard.