Armed Services leaders express confidence in speedy defense bill negotiations

Armed Services leaders express confidence in speedy defense bill negotiations
© Greg Nash

The Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees expressed confidence Wednesday that they will soon finish work on the annual defense policy bill, with Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCNN anchor hits Trump: He didn't go to Vietnam 'until he was in his 70s' with 'Secret Service protection' Trump reignites criticism of McCain months after senator's death Graham defends McCain amid Trump attacks: 'Nothing about his service will ever be changed' MORE (R-Ariz.) going so far as to say it may be done in “days.”

“I am confident that we can accomplish [finishing the negotiations] in the next few days,” McCain, chairman of the Senate committee, said Wednesday. “In recent months, more young Americans have been killed and wounded because of a lack of readiness, because of a lack of training, because of a lack of organization, and that is not something that we should subject the young men and women who are serving in the military to.”

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McCain was speaking alongside House counterpart Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), as well as ranking members Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedOvernight Defense: Senate rejects border emergency in rebuke to Trump | Acting Pentagon chief grilled on wall funding | Warren confronts chief over war fund budget Warren confronts acting Pentagon chief over 4B war fund request Shanahan grilled on Pentagon's border wall funding MORE (D-R.I.) and Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithHouse Armed Services chair denounces new limits on transgender service members Overnight Defense: Senate breaks with Trump on Yemen war | Shanahan hit with ethics complaint over Boeing ties | Pentagon rolls out order to implement transgender ban | Dem chair throws cold water on Space Force budget House Armed Services chairman casts doubt over Trump's proposed Space Force budget MORE (D-Wash.), before conferees had their first official meeting on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The House passed its version of the NDAA in July and the Senate followed suit with its version in September. Both chambers officially moved to go to conference earlier this month.

Though the entire group of conferees had yet to meet before Wednesday, the so-called Big Four and the committee staffs have been hammering out differences in the bill.

Thornberry has previously said negotiators hope to wrap up all major differences by the end of October, save perhaps the topline dollar amount.

“There is a widespread consensus that we need to do better for our military, and just like Chairman McCain said, I am optimistic that we can deliver better in a pretty short amount of time, given the similarities between the House and Senate bills,” Thornberry said Wednesday.

The House NDAA would authorize $621.5 billion in the base defense budget and $75 billion for a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.

Meanwhile, the Senate version would authorize $640 billion for the base defense budget and $60 billion for OCO.

Both bills are above budget caps, and Congress has yet to reach a deal to raise this year’s caps. As a policy bill, the NDAA can proceed regardless, but any money in the bill not appropriated for can’t be used.

Heading into the conference, Smith pressed the need for both the authorization bill and an appropriations bill, despite the difference of opinion on funding levels.

“We cannot live off of a continuing resolution,” he said. “We have to get the authorizing bill passed and the appropriations bill passed so the money is there so the men and women who are serving in the our military at least know what we’re asking of them and have the money to follow up on that. So it’s critical we get this process done.”

Another major issue negotiators will have to overcome is the so-called Space Corps. The House bill would create the new military branch dedicated to space, while the Senate bill would explicitly prohibit its creation.

Asked how the Space Corps issue will be resolved, McCain joked that as “always, however I want it to.”