House defense bill backs $1B pandemic preparedness fund

House defense bill backs $1B pandemic preparedness fund
© Greg Nash

The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the annual defense policy bill would create a $1 billion pandemic response and preparedness fund as the country continues to struggle with the coronavirus crisis.

The so-called chairman’s mark — the version of the bill drafted by Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithWhen 'Buy American' and common sense collide Overnight Defense: Marine Corps brushes off criticism of Marines' appearance in GOP convention video | US troops injured in collision with Russian vehicle in Syria | Dems ask for probe of Vindman retaliation allegations Democrats press Pentagon watchdog to probe allegations of retaliation against Vindman brothers MORE (D-Wash.) — of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would follow a bipartisan budget agreement for a total $740.5 billion defense budget for the Pentagon and other defense programs such as the Department of Energy nuclear programs.

Of that, $731.6 billion is within the committee’s jurisdiction, broken down into $667.6 billion in the base defense budget and $69 billion in a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.

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The bill so far avoids several hot-button issues, including renaming Army bases and other military property that is named after Confederate leaders. But those issues are expected to come up as amendments during next week’s committee markup.

“We have been pummeled with a whole lot of ideas from all different quarters about different aspects of racial justice, different things to do on COVID,” a committee aide told reporters Thursday.

“And what we decided was, we would do the things that we thought we could get bipartisan agreement on and then move on and let the members decide those big issues, both in the mark and on the floor. So our expectations are that there will be a lot of things that speak to these issues, and certainly the renaming of bases is a good example.”

The pandemic fund would support Pentagon agencies' medical research and bolster small businesses in the defense industrial base.

Meanwhile, one of the main fights in last year’s NDAA — blocking the use of Pentagon funding on President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards MORE’s border wall — is dealt with in a less direct way this year.

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Last year’s House-passed NDAA would have restricted the ability to transfer money between accounts, as well as created a blanket ban on using Pentagon funds for the wall. But those provisions were taken out of the bill during negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate, and the NDAA that was signed into law in December did not address the wall.

The aide said the panel was constrained in what it could include in this year’s bill after the bipartisan budget agreement passed last year precluded legislation from changing transfer authority.

Instead, aides highlighted that this year’s NDAA would create caps on emergency use of military construction funding, setting them at $100 million for the domestic projects and $500 million for overseas projects. Trump has taken $3.6 billion from military construction funding for the wall.

The bill would also create new requirements for congressional notification on military activities supporting counterdrug operations and a certification that there will be no effect on readiness from deployments to the border.

The bill would also create a $3.58 billion fund to deter China in the Indo-Pacific region. The fund would support bolstering U.S. presence in the region, pre-positioning equipment there and strengthening military exercises with allies and partners, among other aspects.

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The so-called Indo-Pacific Reassurance Initiative, or something of a similar name, has gained bipartisan momentum in recent months. The Senate Armed Services Committee included in its version of the NDAA what it termed the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, starting with $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2021 and adding $5.5 billion in fiscal 2022.

The proposal for a China deterrence fund is being modeled on the European Deterrence Initiative created in 2014 to counter Russia.

Though the idea predates the coronavirus pandemic, it is moving forward at a time when U.S.-China tensions are running high because of the crisis.

In April, Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryTrump payroll-tax deferral for federal workers sparks backlash Overnight Defense: Woodward book causes new firestorm | Book says Trump lashed out at generals, told Woodward about secret weapons system | US withdrawing thousands of troops from Iraq Top Armed Services Republican 'dismayed' at Trump comments on military leaders MORE (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, proposed a $6 billion Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

On Thursday, the committee aide told reporters there were several funding items in Thornberry’s proposal Democrats could not get behind, such as $450 million from the military services’ unfunded priorities lists, $500 million of future OCO funding and $855 million the aide described as backfill for funding used on the border wall.

There are also differences in what the House bill would fund and what the Senate bill would fund, but a second aide expressed hope at working out the differences, saying “there’s a bipartisan consensus to try to get it done.”

In a news release Thursday, Thornberry’s office highlighted the bill’s inclusion of the initiative as a section of the chairman’s mark “worthy of support,” but suggested he may offer an amendment to expand it because “several important elements that would resource and strengthen ally and partner engagement were not included.”

“The chairman’s mark is not the bill I would have written, but on the whole, it is one I agree with and can support,” Thornberry said in a statement.

“Over the last decade, nothing has been more corrosive to our military competitive edge than late and inadequate funding,” he added. “Nothing in this bill or its Senate companion is so controversial that we cannot come to an agreement before the end of the fiscal year.”