Senate Defense panel approves $594B Pentagon appropriations bill

The Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Defense on Tuesday passed a $594.4 billion bill that keeps Pentagon spending at pre-sequester levels in 2014.

The bill, which includes $516.4 billion in base defense spending and $77.8 billion in war spending, does not take sequestration into account, following the same path as the other three Defense bills Congress has moved this year.

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If sequestration is not averted, the Pentagon’s 2014 budget proposal would face a $52 billion cut.

Subcommittee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and other top lawmakers on the panel said Thursday that sequester had to be dealt with or the Pentagon would face even greater pain in 2014 than it did in 2013.

Durbin warned that the Pentagon’s “whack-a-mole” approach to dealing with sequestration cuts in 2013 cannot be sustained in 2014.

“Civilian workers will be have to be laid off, rather than simply furloughed,” he said, and service members might not receive their bonuses.

There is no end in sight to the sequester, however, despite lawmakers from both parties who want to reverse the cuts.

The disagreement is a long-running dispute between Republicans and Democrats over taxes and spending that has engulfed the Defense budget for the past two years.

While there are stark differences in the House and Senate appropriations bills for other departments, the Defense bills are similar.

The total Senate bill is $3 billion less than the House measure. The Senate’s proposal includes $3.9 billion more in the base budget, but it appropriates $7 billion less in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) than the House and is below the administration’s OCO request.

As part of its reduction in war spending, the Senate measure includes $416.8 million in cuts to light air support aircraft and the Mi-17 helicopters produced by Russian defense firm Rosoboronexport. Congress has sought to stop the Pentagon from buying any helicopters from the Russian arms maker because it also is providing the Syrian regime with weapons.

Durbin’s bill does not make any changes to restrictions on transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees, as the bill defers to the Defense authorization bill.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) included measures easing transfer restrictions in the authorization bill that passed his committee, but Republicans are expected to fight those on the floor.

Durbin last week held the Senate’s first hearing on closing Guantánamo since 2009 in his Judiciary subcommittee.

The bill includes a 1 percent pay raise for troops that was requested by the Pentagon, rather than the 1.8 percent raise that was in the House bill.

The measure includes an increase of $2.9 billion in readiness funds to help restore training that was cut this year to deal with sequestration.

It also pushes back on several Pentagon weapons purchasing plans, including the retirement of nine ships sought by the Defense Department. The measure provides an additional $227 million for Virginia-class submarines and $100 million for the DDG-51 destroyer program.

Durbin’s bill fully funds F-35 procurement in 2014 but limits funding for the 2015 ramp up until testing and software delivery issues have been resolved.

The subcommittee’s legislation will be marked up by the full Appropriations Committee on Thursday, at which point, it faces an uncertain path to the Senate floor.