House panel moves $643B defense bill


The House Armed Services Committee passed its wide-ranging $643 billion defense authorization bill early Thursday morning, but not before the Republican-led panel included several measures that are sure to rile the Obama administration.

The authorization bill passed the committee 56-5 after 2 a.m. Thursday — more than 16 hours after the markup began at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

From the decision to begin planning for an East Coast missile defense site to a ban on same-sex marriage ceremonies on military bases to restoring funding for several weapons systems, the House committee’s bill that passed Wednesday provided a Republican blueprint for what this year’s Pentagon budget should be as the Defense Department prepares to cut $487 billion over the next decade.

The marathon debate was filled with talk of the presidential election, as Republicans criticized President Obama, particularly over missile defense policies and accusations he has a “secret deal” with Russia.

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The bill from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) authorizes $554 billion in base Pentagon spending, an increase of $3.7 billion over the budget request from the president and $88.5 billion for overseas contingency operations (OCO). 

The bill’s funding level sets up a showdown with the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) is expected to budget to the administration’s funding level. The fight has been playing out throughout Congress this year over Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget plan, where he has budgeted higher defense spending and reductions to non-defense discretionary spending.

Beyond the top-line numbers, a number of proposals in the House bill will be met with skepticism in the Democratic-led Senate committee, just as they were Wednesday by House Democrats.

Republicans passed two amendments geared toward same-sex marriage on the same day Obama said he supported it, including a ban on “marriage or marriage-like ceremonies” between same-sex couples at U.S. military bases and a provision preventing military personnel from reprisals for expressing "their moral principles and religious beliefs ... concerning the appropriate and inappropriate expression of human sexuality.”

The debate turned religious between Reps. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), with Sanchez quoting biblical passages and Scott arguing about the Old Testament versus the New Testament.

At one point, when Sanchez asked Scott to yield his time so she could further explain her point, Scott shot back: “I am not yielding any more time to you. I have heard enough.”

Both amendments passed on nearly party-line votes.

Sanchez was also at the center of a contentious debate on missile defense, as Democrats tried to kill a Republican proposal to start planning for an East Coast missile defense site to be operational before 2016.

Republicans said the site is necessary due to rising threats from Iran and North Korea, and Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) argued it was included because Obama was not doing enough on missile defense. He repeatedly referenced Obama’s “hot mic” moment with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, when Obama said he would have “more flexibility” after the election.

Democrats shot back that the Republican arguments and the East Coast missile site were just election-year politicking, and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) called the GOP claims “political nonsense.”

But like the same-sex marriage amendments, the Democrats could do little to alter the GOP proposal in the House, and the amendment to strip the East Coast site failed. Its fate in the Senate is less clear — Pentagon officials have said an East Coast interceptor is not necessary right now.

Some of the other big debates were essentially postponed until the bill goes to the House floor next week, including a resumption of last year’s big fight on terror detainees. Smith has a plan that would bar military detention of terror suspects on U.S. soil, and said he will offer it as an amendment to the bill on the floor.

Smith also sought to propose an amendment advocating for an accelerated drawdown from Afghanistan, but he withdrew the amendment over procedural disagreements.

While the authorization bill had some big issues on which Democrats and Republicans clashed, many of the issues were about Congress pushing back against the Defense Department.

The committee passed an amendment stating that the Pentagon could not implement or even plan for a new round of base closures this year, which passed 44-18 — something the Pentagon had asked for.

The bill restored several cuts that the Pentagon had sought, including for the Global Hawk Block 30 drone and reductions in the Air National Guard. The House rejected some proposed increases to TRICARE health fees as well.

The authorization bill, which has been signed into law for 50 straight years, also includes a 1.7 percent increase in pay for troops.