House, Senate finalize annual defense policy bill

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The final version of an annual defense policy bill jettisons a number of controversial provisions and would authorize $3.2 billion more than President Obama requested.

Senior staffers from the House and Senate Armed Services committees in a Tuesday background briefing detailed the end result of months of negotiations to reconcile the two chambers’ versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The bill would authorize a total of $618.7 billion. Of that, $59.5 would be used for a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. 

Another $8.3 billion from the OCO account would be used for base budget requirements such as a pay raise for troops and troop increases. President Obama requested $5.1 billion from OCO for base requirements.

The troop pay raise would be 2.1 percent, above the president’s request for 1.6 percent pay raise.

End strength would also be increased across the services. The Navy would remain at 323,900 troops, but the new caps for the rest would be:

– 476,000 for the Army, an increase of 1,000 from this year.

– 185,000 for the Marines, an increase of 3,000.

– 321,000 for the Air Force, an increase of 4,000.

It’s unclear whether Democrats will sign the conference report; signatures were still being gathered Tuesday afternoon and the process is expected to go into Wednesday.

Top Democrats did not sign last year’s conference report because it increased defense spending via OCO. Democrats argued that skirted budget caps for defense without rising nondefense spending.

A staffer suggested that could be an issue again this year in getting Democratic support for the bill.

“There’s still an issue that that $3.2 billion … does not have a match on the domestic side, so it brings the same parity issue,” the staffer said.

The conference report also excludes a number of provisions that held up the negotiations.

One that would have kept the greater sage grouse from being listed on the endangered species list is gone.

Also gone is a provision that would have required women to register for the draft. But the bill would still mandate the creation of a commission to study the Selective Service System.

A provision known as the Russell Amendment that said federal contractors couldn’t be discriminated against based on their religion is also gone. Democrats argued the provision would have rolled back an Obama executive order and allowed discrimination against LGBT workers. Enough Senate Democrats to filibuster the bill demanded it be taken out.

A staffer suggested proponents of the provision are hoping President-elect Donald Trump will roll back the order.

“The Russell Amendment was in response to the executive orders. The NDAA was always an imperfect remedy for that problem,” the staffer said. “Subsequent to the election, a new path has opened to address those issues. It’s still a very important issue for the members, and they intend to pursue those other paths.”

Restrictions related to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility would maintain the “status quo” from previous years, staffers said, such as keeping restrictions on transfers to the United States.

The Senate version of the bill would have made a number of changes, including allowing detainees to plead guilty in civilian court via teleconference, allowing temporary transfers to the United States for medical care, allowing funding to be used to plan an alternative to Guantanamo and restricting transfers to any country for which the State Department has issued a travel warning.

Another issue that emerged in recent weeks is addressed in the bill — reviewing National Guard bonuses. Lawmakers were enraged when it was revealed last month that the Pentagon was attempting to recoup erroneously paid bonuses from thousands of National Guard soldiers.

The NDAA would put the burden on the Pentagon to prove soldiers knowingly received bonuses they weren’t entitled to, instead of putting the burden of proof on the soldiers as the Pentagon does now.

The bill would also reauthorize the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program and provide an additional 1,500 visas. The program provides visas to Afghans who assisted U.S. troops and diplomats during the Afghanistan War.

The bill would also tweak the program to give preference to applicants who are in the most danger, such as those living in the “hinterland,” a staffer said.

The bill would also cap the National Security Council to 200 staffers, not including administrative staff. The NSC grew to more than 400 under President Obama. 
Trump advisers have suggested they were also in favor of cutting the size of the NSC. The caps would be phased in over time, senior staffers said.
— Kristina Wong contributed
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