By Martin Matishak and Kristina Wong - 07/17/14 07:48 PM EDT
THE TOPLINE: The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday easily passed a massive defense spending bill that includes money to train and equip “vetted” opposition groups in Syria.
The legislation provides $489.6 billion for the Defense Department’s base budget and $59.7 billion for overseas contingency operations (OCO) funds, including $2.9 billion for cooperative counterterrorism programs.
The bill also grants a 1 percent pay raise for military and civilian personnel and restores $200 million to maintain military commissary operations.
The only contentious part of the markup came when Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) proposed an amendment redirecting $500 million in OCO funds the White House wanted to spend on training and equipping rebel forces in Syria.
“Syria is a kaleidoscope of ever-changing circumstances and loyalties,” Pryor said in defense of his measure. “Our friends today could be our enemies tomorrow.”
The amendment split the panel, with some Democrats and Republicans voicing support for the measure.
“It is a gamble, make no mistake,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the defense subcommittee.
Pryor’s amendment went down in a 21-9 recorded vote.
It is unclear when the full Senate will take up the spending bill.
DOD DEFENDS WAR FUNDING. Pentagon officials defended their request for $60 billion in war funds before the House Budget Committee on Thursday as lawmakers accused them of trying to avoid budget caps and congressional scrutiny.
The Pentagon is requesting the money for its fiscal 2015 wartime budget, the overseas contingency operations fund (OCO), but only $11 billion of the total would go toward U.S. operations in Afghanistan, which are being wound down.
Lawmakers have accused the administration of seeking a "slush fund" they can use for things previously paid for in the Pentagon's base budget.
But defense officials said that most of the money — $53.7 billion — would go to operations outside of Afghanistan but in support of the mission in the region.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work testified that the requested funds for support operations in the Middle East had been approved in prior years through OCO spending.
"The rules for using OCO to fund things in the base were a lot looser at the start of the war, but they have tightened up extremely," Work said.
The Pentagon request, though, has sparked anger from both sides of the aisle.
Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said Pentagon officials should not use the fund, intended to pay for Iraq and Afghan war operations, "to pay for long-term needs."
"It's almost impossible for me to believe I'm sitting here with Democrats and Republicans are sitting on the same sheet of paper," said Rep. James McDermott (D-Wash.).
Lawmakers also questioned a $5 billion request for the president's counterterrorism partnerships fund, which would train and equip foreign militaries, including Syrian opposition rebels, and provide money for Syria's neighbors to help stabilize the region.
They demanded more details over how those funds would be spent, and said the request duplicated existing Pentagon funds for the same purpose.
"The language is exceptionally broad. And it makes people feel like it just amounts to a blank check," said Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.).
AMBIGIOUS ON AFGHANISTAN: Military leaders would have preferred that President Obama not give a firm timetable for withdrawing forces from Afghanistan, the top U.S. commander in the country said on Thursday.
“I think all of us in uniform, to include the Afghans, would have preferred that that be a bit more ambiguous,” said Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who is now commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The president in May announced he intends to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by 2017. The drawdown date has drawn criticism from Republican critics and former administration and military officials, who say it is based on political timelines and allows Taliban insurgents to bide their time.
Dunford, who was questioned about the strategy during his Senate confirmation hearing to become the next Marine Corps commandant, said he agreed with the president’s overall plan to drawdown U.S. troops from 30,000 to 9,800 by the end of the year, and roughly half that by the end of 2015. The troop presence would fall to about 1,000 by the end of 2016.
The 9,800 U.S. forces in 2015 would stay through that year’s fighting season, along with 4,000 NATO troops, Dunford said. In 2016, the U.S. would “collapse back to a Kabul-centric approach.”
Dunford said there were still individuals in both Afghanistan and Pakistan who are determined to “replicate acts like 9/11” and that collapsing back to Kabul would be “a significant reduction in our overall counterterrorism capability.”
“The only way that we will be successful for us to be in Kabul [would] be if Afghanistan and Pakistan are capable of dealing with the threat in 2016,” he said.
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