Senate panel approves $602B defense bill

Senate panel approves $602B defense bill
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The Senate Armed Services Committee passed its $602 billion annual defense policy bill Thursday, setting itself up for a clash with the House on several points.

The committee passed the bill 23-3 in a closed session. On Thursday evening, the committee released a summary confirming what Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has hinted at in recent weeks — that his bill would deviate from that of the House.

McCain touted various reforms to Pentagon leadership and buying programs in the Senate’s 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

“This is a reform bill,” McCain said in written statement. “The NDAA contains the most sweeping reforms of the organization of the Department of Defense in a generation.”

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But the two versions differ by $8 billion in overall spending — and by much more on how to allocate funds. 

The Senate version of the NDAA would authorize $602 billion for defense spending. That would be split between $543 billion for the base budget and $59 billion for a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund.

Of the OCO fund, $5 billion would be used for base requirements, the amount requested by the Obama administration.

The House version would authorize $610 billion for defense spending. But it would take an extra $18 billion from the war fund to use for base requirements, for a total of $23 billion.

And the remaining OCO fund would only be authorized through April 2017 under the House’s plan. At that point, the next president would need to request supplemental funding in order to continue overseas operations.

Democrats and the Pentagon have slammed the House’s approach, saying it could potentially leave troops deployed overseas without the money they need. 

But Republicans in the House say the extra base funding will pay for equipment repairs and training troops to be ready to deploy in the first place.

Among the funding in the Senate version, the bill would authorize the same amount of troops requested by Obama, $3.4 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative as requested and $1.3 billion in consolidated funding for counter-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria efforts, including train-and-equip programs for Iraq and Syria and border security operations in Jordan and Lebanon.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said the Senate bill makes needed reforms and investments.

“Growing demands have been placed upon our military, and our troops deserve a budget and policies to match their extraordinary courage and sacrifice,” Reed said in a written statement. “This bill makes important investments in readiness and includes several needed reforms, and we will continue working with our colleagues to make improvements. Congress must ensure our forces have the right tools to conduct operations and help our allies combat violent extremists.”

The Senate bill also differs from the House on Russian-made rocket engines, of which McCain has been an ardent opponent. The Senate version would allow the Air Force nine of the engines, while the House version would allow 18. 

The engines are used in national security satellite launches, but McCain has been trying to get the Air Force to stop using them, arguing that it lines the pockets of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cronies.

Meanwhile, the Air Force and the engines’ supporters in Congress argue that they are needed to ensure access to space until a viable U.S.-made alternative is available. 

The Senate bill would also require women to register for the draft and establish the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service to review the future of the Selective Service System, as the draft is officially called.

The House version would also require women to register, but floor amendments propose stripping out that language. 

Other provisions in the Senate version include reforms to what’s known a the Goldwater-Nichols Act, a 30-year-old law that set up the chain of command the Pentagon still follows. The reforms include clarifying the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, requiring a pilot program on an alternative organizational structure for a combatant command and reducing the number of four-star generals. 

The bill would also cap the size of the National Security Council, which some lawmakers argue has gotten too large and powerful under the Obama administration, limiting it to 150 staffers.

A slew of reforms to the Pentagon’s acquisition program include proposals to reform and improve rapid acquisition authority and rapid prototyping; disestablish the under secretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and divide duties between a new under secretary of Defense for research and engineering and the under secretary of management and support; and streamline regulation. 

Restrictions on the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, including prohibiting detainee transfers to the United States, would stay in place under the bill. That would keep the prohibition in place until after President Obama leaves office, hamstringing his efforts to shutter the detention facility.