Week ahead: Conference committee to hash out defense bill

Concerns on Capitol Hill earlier this year over whether Congress was in danger of not passing a DOD authorization bill during this legislative year were quashed last Tuesday, when the Senate approved its version of the $631 billion spending package.

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Last Tuesday’s vote continued the Senate’s record of successfully passing a Pentagon budget bill uninterrupted for the last 51 years, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said after the vote.

By a unanimous vote of 98-0, members of the upper chamber officially ended a week of contentious debate over the hundreds of amendments proposed by senators for the department’s FY12 fiscal blueprint.

Despite that lengthy debate, unanimous Senate support for the bill was driven by the lack of controversial issues this year that have made the bill sometimes divisive in previous budget cycles.

One area, however, is guaranteed to raise lawmakers’ hackles once conferees begin hashing out the details of the defense bill.

An amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on banning the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens on terrorism charges received bipartisan support when it was included as part of the defense bill.

But that support, particularly by defense hawks Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), masked what is expected to be a brutal fight among conferees behind closed doors in the coming weeks.

The House version of the defense bill included no such restrictions on the Pentagon or White House on those detainee operations.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) issued a statement after the amendment passed that said he was “committed” to the position the House reached on detention.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also hinted that the House legislation could play a role in the final bill’s text. “If there’s doubt about our interpretations, there’s an easy fix and we’ll find that in conference,” Graham said.

On the other side of the Potomac, Pentagon officials plan to continue work on a review of ethical standards among its most senior general and flag officers, in the wake of the sex scandal involving former Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

On Friday, DOD press secretary George Little discussed some of the preliminary findings of the ethics review, called for by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Of those recommendations, Little noted DOD needed to “to start earlier and reinforce ... more frequently” basic ethics training within an officer’s career progression.

Additionally, Little noted the Pentagon needed to re-examine the “level and type of support” senior military officers receive, in terms of ethical practices, throughout the course of their careers.

That support “is necessary ... to make sure we are being consistent, sensible, and efficient,” he added.