Senate panel moves $631B Defense bill

The Senate Armed Services Committee passed its version of the Defense Authorization bill Thursday, setting Pentagon spending in line with President Obama’s desired level and setting up a showdown with the Republican-led House.

The Senate panel passed the $631.4 billion bill unanimously out of committee, committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Thursday. It is about $4 billion below the funding-level set in the legislation that passed the House.

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The differences between the two bills will have to be resolved in conference committee, although both bills are above the spending caps set by last year's Budget Control Act.   

The Senate bill reverses several cuts the Pentagon had requested in its plans to cut $487 billion over the next decade, pushing back on reductions in the Air National Guard and proposed increases to TRICARE fees.

Levin said that the committee made about 150 changes from the president’s request.

The panel also took aim at aid to Pakistan, as ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) expressed outrage at the sentencing of Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi for his role helping the United States kill Osama bin Laden.

McCain said the bill fenced in funds to aid Pakistan’s military until Islamabad opens its supply routes, is not supporting extremist groups and is not detaining citizens — a reference to Afridi, who was sentenced to 33 years in prison for treason.

“That has frankly outraged all of us,” McCain said. “It is our goal to make sure this doctor is not sentenced to death — which is basically what he got — for helping us apprehend Osama bin Laden.”

Levin and McCain held a joint press conference to announce the details of the bill on Thursday, which was marked up behind closed doors in committee Wednesday and Thursday. The bill now moves to the floor, where Levin said it’s on a list of bills to be considered in June by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The bill did not directly tackle the $500 billion in automatic cuts through sequestration that the Defense Department potentially faces next year, which both Levin and McCain have said must be reversed. But the bill does instruct the Pentagon to explain the effects of sequestration — something it has yet to do — on the Defense Department to help “understand the huge impact” sequestration would have, Levin said.

During the markup, the committee did not tackle one of the most contentious issues in the Defense authorization bill, indefinite detention.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) withdrew his amendment to change the language in last year’s authorization bill, saving it instead for debate before the full Senate on the floor.

Udall and opponents of indefinite detention want to change the law to stop military detention on U.S. soil, while supporters say it’s a necessary tool for the government to stop terrorism.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), one of the most vocal detention supporters, said she will also bring amendments to the floor on the issue.

Many of the major changes that the Armed Services panel made involved pushing back against the Pentagon’s proposed cuts.

Levin said that the committee froze most of the cuts to personnel and aircraft in the Air National Guard, because senators felt that the cuts hit the Guard disproportionally and Air Force officials were not the “least bit convincing” about why the cuts were necessary.

“We rejected the Air Force plan,” Levin said. “There was a broad feeling in the committee that the Air Force did not have a basis that was solid for where they were making these reductions.”

The committee also killed a proposed increase in fees to TRICARE and maintained funding for production of the M1 Abrams tanks that the Pentagon had opposed, changes that were similar to what the House made in its Defense bill that passed the House last week.

But one of the House’s major provisions — a new East Coast missile defense — was rejected by the Senate. Levin said there’s language in the bill for the Pentagon to assess the feasibility of a site, which is far short of the House’s plan to have it operational by 2016.

McCain told reporters Tuesday that he was “skeptical” of an East Coast site, which Pentagon officials have said they don’t think is necessary.

The Senate panel did follow the House on including more funds for Israel’s missile defense, as Levin said there was money for Israel’s Iron Dome system, which has broad backing in Congress.

McCain said the committee for the first time included provisions to reduce the civilian workforce in the Defense Department by 5 percent over the next five years, which he said was added because the military is shedding personnel to deal with budget cuts. 

This story was updated at 4:58 p.m.