House panel authorizes nearly $700 billion in Defense spending

The House Armed Services Committee early Thursday approved a spending measure that clears the Pentagon and Energy Department to spend nearly $700 billion next fiscal year.

The panel approved a baseline Pentagon spending level of $553 billion, matching the Obama administration’s request. It also authorized the Energy Department to spend $18 billion on nuclear weapons projects and cleared the military to spend $118 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

{mosads}The $690 billion defense authorization measure is expected to hit the House floor the week of May 23, according to aides.

The marathon markup began Wednesday morning and stretched into the early morning hours of Thursday.

As one day became another, the committee approved an amendment aimed at delaying a repeal of the ban on openly gay military service members. Democrats threw out the so-called “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy last year during a lame-duck legislative session, against the wishes of most Republicans.

The provision approved by the panel would add the four service chiefs to the list of military leaders that must certify the military to officially end the ban. The services are in the midst of training personnel on how they should behave after the policy ends.

Experts see the amendment — which has brought the ire of gay-rights groups — as a delaying tactic, with even those who supported it acknowledging the chiefs inevitably will sign on.

Panel Republicans pushed through language reiterating that the U.S. is at war with al Qaeda and the Taliban, with Democrats charging they are looking to use it as a tool in the policy debate over detainees.

The committee engaged in a sometimes testy partisan debate over various amendments brought by Republicans that would put a number of stipulations on the New START nuclear weapons reduction treaty the Obama administration hammered out last year with Russia. The Senate has ratified that pact, but House GOP members want to make sure this — and future — presidents live up to terms of the deal made to secure ratification.

To get GOP support in the Senate, President Obama agreed to spend billions to upgrade America’s existing nuclear arsenal.

The House Armed Services panel approved several amendments that would require presidential notification if specific aspects of the nation’s nuclear targeting strategy are changed and keep “forward-deployed nuclear forces … based in Europe.”

Another New START amendment would limit the executive branch’s ability to spend funds between 2011 and 2017 to retire any system covered by the U.S.-Russia treaty. Democrats charged the amendment was too broad and undefined, with several claiming it would “tie the hands” of Obama and future presidents.

It does, however, contain an out for the executive branch, stating such retirements can move forward if the secretaries of energy and defense “may jointly waive the limitation” in a written notification to Congress.

On Wednesday afternoon, the committee adopted a provision that would trigger a competition to build F-35 fighter engine if certain improvements are made to the primary power plant. The panel also killed an amendment to strip $380 million from the F-35 program by cutting the planned buy of the Marines’ B variant by two jets.

On nearly all major hardware programs, the committee’s bill includes the funding levels sought by the Obama administration.

One exception was a big-ticket missile program, however.

After a heated exchange between senior Democratic and Republican panel members, the committee agreed to propose adding $100 million to the Ground Based Midcourse Defense missile program. As a part of that debate, Republicans agreed to add the same amount to the bill for National Guard and Reserve equipment by taking $100 million from a troubled project to place an advanced sensor on a C-12 aircraft.

The debate got so intense that, at its conclusion, panel Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) advised his members to “calm down” as the committee prepared for a dinner break.


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