House Armed Services moving ahead with $640B top line

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry said he is “moving ahead” with plans to mark up the panel’s fiscal 2018 defense policy bill at roughly $705 billion — some $37 billion above the president’s request.

But the Texas Republican said he was open to lowering the amount if negotiations in Congress yield a budget deal that stabilizes defense funding over the next several years. For now, the House’s National Defense Authorization Act would approve $640 billion in the base budget and $65 billion in war funding, which is exempt from statutory budget caps.

“I think $640 [billion] is what we need to address the problems that have developed from [budget caps] and the tempo of operations,” Thornberry told reporters. “If I were to agree to a lower number, I would need some added stability to the out years. With the [2011 Budget Control Act], every year we are scrambling to avoid disaster, and meanwhile the problems keep mounting. There’s value if we can get away from this.”

As of Thursday, conversations were ongoing between the HASC, the House Budget Committee and the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. To adjust or do away with the Budget Control Act’s spending caps, which expire in 2022, would require Congress to change the law.

The House Budget Committee’s 2018 resolution would set defense spending at $621.5 billion, which is $72.5 billion above budget caps and $36.5 billion more than the previous year for defense. The panel would also cut nondefense spending to $511 billion, which is $5 billion below the caps. 

The widely reported numbers were confirmed by House Budget Committee staff as a reflection of ongoing negotiations within the Republican conference. With just 30 legislative days on Congress’ calendar before the end of the fiscal year, the committee has been under pressure to move ahead, with or without support from the full GOP conference. 

The House Budget Committee’s defense number is halfway between the $603 billion in base defense funding President Donald Trump requested and the $640 billion sought by Thornberry and other pro-defense Republicans, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.

Their figure surpasses budget caps by $91 billion, but Thornberry noted those caps do not apply to the authorization bill.

The powerful House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, said in May that $603 billion for the 2018 defense appropriations bill would be “reasonable” and that $640 billion wouldn’t be reached “unless something drops from heaven.”

“The House Authorization Committee, when it comes to the top-line, deals in aspirations, and the Appropriations Committee deals in reality,” Sen. Richard Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat and the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said in response to a question about defense budget negotiations.

Democrats are needed to reach the 60-vote threshold in the Senate to ease budget caps, and they and others have objected to the Trump budget’s plan to pay for defense increases with nondefense cuts. 

Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments research fellow Katherine Blakeley noted that Congress has little time left to iron out a federal spending plan, with nominations and an ambitious GOP agenda that includes tax reform and a health care overhaul eating up the legislative calendar. “They’re trying to move with alacrity, but they’re facing down the clock,” she said.

The GOP strategy to pass spending measures is a big, open question, Blakeley said. For defense, it’s unclear whether Congress will hew to the Mattis budget request’s emphasis on research and development as well as and operations and maintenance — or upend it by seeking more procurement funding.

“Will they shift more money into O&M or will they try to grow the force — which Mattis says the Pentagon is not ready to do, and that they want to prepare to grow in fiscal ’19,” Blakeley said. “How fast can the Army responsibly grow?”

Amid negotiations over the top line, Thornberry and committee aides had been tight-lipped this week on most numbers in the massive draft bill. That bill, with funding tables for specific acquisitions programs, is expected to be released Monday.

HASC subcommittees passed their sections of the House version of the 2018 NDAA this week ahead of the full committee’s markup session on June 28. 

Language in the
Seapower Subcommittee will recommend one additional destroyer, two littoral combat ships, one amphibious dock landing ship and one expeditionary support base, subpanel Chairman Rob Wittman, R-Va., said before it passed its section of the draft bill. The mark also recommends an additional advance procurement for aircraft carriers and attack submarines. As to aircraft, the subcommittee also recommended an expansion of KC-46As, C-130J variants, E-2Ds and P-8s.  

The bill would also strike the requirement to send the Navy’s new Ford aircraft carrier into shock trials before its first deployment, a plan first mandated in the 2016 defense policy bill.

Before the
Strategic Forces Subcommittee passed its portion, its chairman, Mike Rogers, R-Ala., recommended a $2 billion boost for the president’s request for American missile defense programs and $550 million more for Israeli missile defense programs.

Rogers defended the markup’s proposed reorganization of Air Force space programs, saying he was “outraged” Air Force leaders have pushed back. 

The language would create a new military service responsible for national security in space: a Space Corps. It would be subordinate to the Air Force and U.S. Strategic Command, with a four-star leader in the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Michael Turner, R-Ohio, said before his subcommittee passed its portion that it would fully authorize the Army’s $12.7 billion unfunded requirements list. If reflected in the final bill, it would grow the total force by 17,000 troops, increase munitions stockpiles, and further modernize both brigade combat teams and vertical lift capabilities.

Emerging Threats Subcommittee, which oversees $68 billion in programs, would authorize $12.3 billion for U.S. Special Operations Command, and it aims to boost cyber capabilities. It would strengthen the Pentagon’s cyber resiliency, build its workforce and boost training — and build partnerships in Asia to counter Chinese and North Korean aggression, and within NATO to counter Russian aggression. 

Readiness Subcommittee rejected the Pentagon’s request for a round of the politically unpopular Base Realignment and Closure process in 2021. 




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