Top Dem optimistic lawmakers can pass defense bill

Top Dem optimistic lawmakers can pass defense bill
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The ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee is optimistic Congress won’t break its 54-year streak of passing a defense policy bill despite a shortened election-year schedule and divisions between the House and Senate.

“Of course it could be” the year it doesn’t pass, Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithTop Democrats warn against withdrawing from treaty that allows observation flights over Russia This year, let's cancel the Nobel Prize in economics Pentagon space agency to request .6 billion over five years: report MORE (D-Wash.) told reporters at a Defense Writers Group breakfast on Wednesday. “I don’t think it will be.”

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The two chambers are expected to officially form a conference committee prior to an extended summer break to start reconciling their versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The goal remains to have a bill before Oct. 1 as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Meghan McCain: It's 'breaking my heart' Warren is leading Biden in the polls The Hill's 12:30 Report: Video depicting Trump killing media, critics draws backlash MORE (R-Ariz.) has said, Smith added.

Last year’s NDAA was vetoed at first over funding concerns. A new version was eventually signed after a bipartisan budget agreement settled the funding issue.

This year, Smith said, he expects the different funding tactics in each bill to be the biggest issue during negotiations.

“It would have been nice if the agreement that we reached eight, nine months ago now, we just stuck to,” Smith said, referring to last year’s budget agreement, which Democrats charge House Republicans broke in their chamber's version of the bill.

The Senate bill would authorize $543 billion for the base budget and $59 billion for a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.

In the House bill, $23 billion of the OCO would be used for base budget items. That’s $18 billion more than the Obama administration had requested to use for the base budget. As such, the OCO account would only be authorized through April, forcing the next president to request supplemental war funding.

The White House has threatened to veto both versions of the bill for a variety of reasons; the top concern about the House version was the funding tactic.

Smith predicted the bill would only be vetoed if the funding issue isn’t resolved in the conference negotiations.

“That’s the only real show stopper,” he said. “We’ll have to work closely with the White House on what some of their other veto concerns are, but I feel very confident that we can get the bill this year.”

Other issues to deal with during conference negotiations include acquisition reform and organizational reforms at the Pentagon, areas in which the Senate version of the bill goes further than the House version.

Smith said he’s “intrigued” at McCain’s approach to organizational reform, as he think the Pentagon should be more flexible in responding to threats. The White House largely opposed the proposed reforms, saying they are overly prescriptive.

“I am intrigued by the possibility of making changes that move in this direction,” Smith said. “Now does McCain have the exact right formula? Is the White House completely wrong in their criticism? No and no. But I think we have to move in that direction.”

Despite the fact that both chambers are scheduled to begin a summer recess at the end of next week and not return until after Labor Day, work will continue on the bill throughout the summer, Smith said.

“We will be working on this issue throughout July and August, and by we, I primarily mean the staff,” he said.

One area Smith is less optimistic about is that controversial amendments will be stripped out of the bill during negotiations. Specifically, he and other Democrats voted against the House version of the bill in May in part because of an amendment they say would allow discrimination against LGBT people. 

“Once they get in there, they become invested in it,” Smith said. “So I think those things will continue to be issues, and that it will be contentious. Obviously, we will be arguing to strip them, but how strongly the Republican caucus feels about it is what both [House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry] and I have to deal with because ultimately we have to get the votes to pass the bill.”