House panel passes $612B defense bill

House panel passes $612B defense bill
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The House Armed Services Committee early Thursday morning passed defense policy bill that authorizes $612 billion in funding for the Pentagon in 2016. 

The bill, which was passed by a 60-2 vote after 19 hours of debate, adds more restrictions on the Obama administration's ability to transfer detainees housed at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, something the White House has protested. 

It also authorizes funding based on Republican spending proposals, which would leave in place federal budget caps known as sequestration. 

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The administration had requested Congress lift the caps and spend $561 billion on the base defense spending, and $51 billion on war funding. 

The committee's bill, however, ignores that request and authorizes $523 billion in base defense spending and $89 billion in war funding — leaving in place the spending caps on both defense and non-defense spending. 

The bill now heads to the House floor for a vote in May and will have to be conferenced with the Senate, where the White House might have more luck in trying to undo some of the House's provisions. 

The White House had previously threatened to veto any bill that left in place the sequester, but stopped short of that in a statement on the House bill, only criticizing "some provisions."  

The committee's bill adopts a major reform to the military's retirement system that would start with troops who begin serving after Oct. 1, 2017. The reform would shelve a system that only benefited those who served for at least 20 years.  

The new retirement system, which has been loosely endorsed by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, would allow troops to accrue retirement benefits after two years of service in a 401(k)-type plan, but would still allow troops who retire after 20 years to receive 40 percent of their annual pay — versus 50 percent — each year until they reach retirement age.  

The panel on Wednesday evening rejected an amendment that would have stripped the bill of the retirement change, which is aimed at improving the system but also saving the Pentagon money on personnel costs. 

But the panel also rejected a number of cost-saving proposals requested by the Pentagon, including retiring the A-10 attack jet. 

Although the bill provides full funding for the A-10 fleet in 2016, the panel passed an amendment that would explicitly prohibit the Air Force from retiring the aircraft, after emotional debate. 

The legislation rejects Pentagon proposals to close excess military bases and infrastructure and plans to trim support for military grocery stores and housing allowances for troops. The legislation backs pay raises for troops at 2.3 percent, versus a Pentagon call for 1.3 percent.  

The bill also adds additional funding for fighter aircraft for the Navy and Marine Corps, including six more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters than requested and 12 extra F/A-18 Super Hornets. 

The panel also authorized more funds than requested for UH-60M Black Hawks for the Army National Guard, and $30 million for an East Coast missile defense site, a project opposed by Senate Democrats.  

The bill also supports a number of other weapons programs requested by the services, including a carrier-based drone known as the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS. 

It provides funding for Ford-class Carriers, Arleigh Burke Flight IIA/III destroyers, two Virginia class submarines, and three new littoral combat ships, among other ships. It also increases Tomahawk missile procurement, and retains 11 cruisers despite the Navy's wishes to retire them. 

In addition the panel approved an amendment to allow the U.S. and Israel to develop an "anti-tunneling" system to protect against terrorist attacks.