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Four sticking points to a GOP defense deal

Four sticking points to a GOP defense deal
© Greg Nash

House and Senate defense committee leaders are set to face off in closed door talks in the coming days over a Pentagon policy bill that could have broad implications for the country.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainHouse Freedom Caucus chair weighs Arizona Senate bid Cindy McCain planning 'intimate memoir' of life with John McCain Trump-McConnell rift divides GOP donors MORE (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryUnnamed law enforcement banned under the new NDAA Lobbying world Senate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto MORE (R-Texas), the two Armed Services Committee chairmen, will lead the sides in hashing out major differences between their bills in hopes of getting a final measure to the president's desk by mid-July.

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The House has named their conferees, and aides said the Senate is expected to name theirs early next week. Staff members have been instructed to complete conference talks as early as next week, leaving only the biggest issues to the chairman and ranking members of the two panels. 

Here’s a look at the top policy differences in the two bills.

Guantanamo

Both bills would extend restrictions on releasing Guantanamo Bay detainees, but the Senate version would give the administration a path to close the prison.

If the White House submits a plan to close Gitmo and Congress approves it, restrictions on moving detainees to super-maximum security prisons in the U.S. would be dropped under the Senate bill.

This is a huge point of opposition in the House. Thornberry’s bill extends existing restrictions and adds new ones on detainee transfers. The White House opposes the House provisions, calling them “unwarranted.”

McCain said the president has agreed to send over a plan, and has already sent Defense Secretary Ash Carter and White House counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco to his office to discuss the matter. 

The Senate chairman told reporters late last month that he would prefer to have a plan before sitting down with his House counterparts.

Acquisition reform

Both the Senate and House bill contain reforms to streamline how the Pentagon spends billions on weapons systems.

However, the Senate’s version would reduce the defense secretary’s decision-making authority and empower the military services, in order to hold them better accountable. 

The Pentagon’s civilian leadership and the White House staunchly oppose the Senate’s proposal, which they say would worsen the problem and interfere with progress being made.

Defense budget expert Mackenzie Eaglen sees acquisition reform is the “biggest sticking point” between the two bills.

She also argues it is the most likely provision to draw a veto from President Obama.

“This is the only provision that could sway a decision by the president to veto it if he were not planning to do so already. If it stays, it is a near certainty it will garner a veto,” said Eaglen, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Troop Pay Raises and Benefits 

Both bills would authorize troop pay raises above the current level of 1 percent, but the House bill would authorize a pay raise of 2.3 percent, while the Senate bill authorizes the president’s request of 1.3 percent. 

The issue of troop compensation and benefits has been a politically sensitive issue, but in recent years, the Senate has been more forward leaning in seeking to rein in personnel costs the Pentagon says is eating up too much of the defense budget. 

The Senate bill would also increase prescription drug co-payments for beneficiaries of the military’s insurance program known as Tricare. 

Meanwhile, the House version rejects any raises in Tricare fees, including in prescription drug co-payments. 

Russian-made rocket engines 

Since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year, lawmakers have been looking to reduce U.S. reliance on Russian-made military equipment.

The Air Force has contracts with United Launch Alliance to launch sensitive payloads, which uses rockets with Russian-made engines for the bulk of those launches. 

The Senate bill would limit the Pentagon to use no more than nine rockets with Russian-made engines, while the House's version would allow the use of up to 14. 

McCain, who has been a vocal critic of Moscow, has vowed to end reliance on the Russian-made engines by 2019, but the Pentagon has argued that could create a gap in the U.S. military’s ability to launch missions.

“With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I will continue to oppose language currently in the House defense authorization bill, which guarantees that $300 million of taxpayer money will go to Vladimir Putin, his cronies, and the Russian military industrial base,” McCain said earlier this week.