Armed Services leaders encouraged after first conference meeting

Armed Services leaders encouraged after first conference meeting
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The conferees reconciling the House and Senate versions of a defense policy bill had a productive first meeting Wednesday, the leaders of the Armed Services committees agreed.

Still, the meeting made clear the $18 billion gap between the two bills will be a hurdle to overcome, they added.

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“We had a very, I think, fruitful discussion, members of the Senate and House, members of both the committees and outside committee,” said Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Redistricting reform key to achieving the bipartisanship Americans claim to want Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race MORE (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I still believe that with the significant challenges that we face, including the issue of sequestration and others, I don’t believe that we’re going to break a 53-year tradition of producing a defense authorization bill because we all agree it’s too important to the men and women who are serving in our military.” 

McCain was talking with reporters alongside his counterpart in the House, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), and the ranking Democrats on both committees, Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedDefense bill sets up next fight over military justice  Ukraine president, US lawmakers huddle amid tensions with Russia Photos of the Week: Tornado aftermath, Medal of Honor and soaring superheroes MORE (R.I.) and Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithHillicon Valley — Shutterfly gets hacked Biden signs 8 billion defense bill Overnight Defense & National Security — Democrats spar over military justice reform MORE (D-Wash.), after a “pass the gavel” meeting where conferees discussed the priorities and issues they want to address during negotiations on the National Defense Authorization Act.

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.

As far as other differences between the two bills, McCain said he doesn’t “see a lot of distance.”

But the money will be a “stumbling block,” he and the others agreed.

“We have not found a way through that yet, but we have just begun,” McCain said.

One complicating factor in recent weeks is President Obama’s decision to leave more troops than planned in Afghanistan and send more troops to Iraq. Both Thornberry and McCain have said those decisions require more defense spending.

Reports indicate the Pentagon may submit a supplemental funding request, Thornberry said. But in the meantime, he added, lawmakers still have to negotiate the bill.

“Our job is to work on these intense discussions, get our bill ready, come back in September and see what the fiscal landscape looks like, and we’ll work our way from there,” Thornberry said.

The White House has threatened to veto the House version of the bill, largely because of how it authorizes funding.

The quartet of lawmakers said it’s too early in the conference process to say whether the final bill will result in a veto showdown with the White House. 

“We are seriously engaging and trying to find a way through this,” Reed said.

The lawmakers were confident they will find a way to fund defense despite budget caps.

“We always have,” McCain and Smith said in concert. 

Added Thornberry: “Our job is to support the men and women who risk their lives to defend the country. And so whatever problems there may be, we’ve got to work through them because that’s what comes first, and that’s the mood in this room.”