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House Passes Defense Authorization Bill

By Connor Obrien, CQ Roll Call

The House Thursday passed its fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill by a wide bipartisan margin, on the same day the Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to approve its own measure.  The House advanced 325-98 the annual defense policy legislation (HR 4435) after disposing of 169 amendments, debating all proposals Wednesday night and holding a rapid-fire vote session Thursday morning before final passage.

Thursday’s vote puts the authorization measure on the path to enactment for the 53rd consecutive year. At the outset of floor debate, House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., who will retire from Congress at the end of his current term, called leading the panel the highlight of his career and hailed the bipartisan process that produced the legislation year after year.  “Congress has no higher responsibility than to provide for the common defense,” McKeon said. “And with that in mind, I look forward to passing this bill for the 53rd consecutive year, my last year as chairman and as a member of Congress.”

The bill adheres to the discretionary top-line figure established by December budget law ( PL 113-67 ), but largely avoids contentious issues such as an additional round of base closures, prosecution of sexual assaults in the military, illegal immigrants serving in the armed forces, overhauling military compensation and retirement of weapons systems.

The ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith of Washington, praised McKeon for upholding the panel’s bipartisan traditions, but also criticized lawmakers for refusing to make tough choices. Smith called the House’s rule (H Res 590) for amendment debate “weak.”

“It avoided, you know, the more difficult issues, and I think that’s unfortunate,” said Smith, who supported the bill. Smith had proposed amendments to authorize a 2017 BRAC and permit the Navy to take cruisers out of service, neither of which were made in order.  The measure would authorize $592.9 billion for discretionary Pentagon and Defense-related programs in fiscal 2015, $2.7 billion less than the president’s request, including $79.4 billion to support overseas contingency operations, including the war in Afghanistan. The bill does not, however, specify where the overseas contingency funds are to be spent because the administration has yet to formally submit a detailed budget request for the account to Congress.

 Use of Force Authorization Lawmakers rejected 191-233 a bid by California Democrat Adam B. Schiff to sunset the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force ( PL 107-40 ), which was enacted shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Schiff’s amendment would repeal the authorization undefined the central legal justification for military activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere undefined one year after the bill’s enactment. Schiff, a member of the Intelligence Committee, argued the law was overly broad and outdated and that his amendment would provide a timeline for both the president and Congress to consider a new strategy.

“Without a sunset, I am convinced that a year from now we will be exactly where we are today undefined continuing to rely on an increasingly legally unreliable AUMF,” Schiff said. The bill incorporates a Duncan Hunter , R-Calif., amendment, adopted by voice vote in an en bloc package, that would require the president to report to Congress on the identity and location of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, as well as a description of all actions taken to kill or capture those individuals. It also would call on the White House to determine whether the president possesses the authority to use military force against the people and organizations involved in the attack. Guantanamo Detainees As with previous years’ authorization measures, the fiscal 2015 bill would bar the transfer of detainees currently held at the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States for imprisonment. In a similar fashion as prior years, the House rebuffed 177-247 a Smith amendment that would establish a framework for closure of the facility by the end of 2016. Smith echoed Democratic contentions that the facility was needlessly expensive and that terrorists are already held in U.S. prisons.

“We have the ability in the United States of America to hold dangerous people,” Smith said. “I will submit to you that if we didn’t have that ability we would be in a whole lot of trouble regardless of the people at Guantánamo Bay.” Republicans countered that the facility is a solid alternative to the politically unpopular act of housing detainees domestically and an asset to U.S. national security.

 “If al Qaida’s on the run, I think it’s toward us,” said Ohio Republican Brad Wenstrup . New START Funding The bill includes a spate of provisions that restrict contact and cooperation with the Russian military in light of its annexation of Crimea. Prior to passing the bill, lawmakers adopted 233-191 an amendment proposed by Doug Lamborn , R-Colo., that would restrict funding for the implementation of the 2010 New START nuclear arms reduction treaty until the Defense secretary certifies that Russia is no longer occupying Ukrainian territory and is in compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

“Why in the world would we want to give up further nuclear forces when the party that’s supposed to be working with us on this is not reliable?” Lamborn said.  Major Weapons Systems The bill would authorize $8 billion for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, equal to the administration’s request. The legislation also would prohibit the retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft–a popular platform among lawmakers from both parties that saw heavy use in support of ground operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Due to sequestration, the Air Force planned to deactivate its A-10 fleet, but the bill would fund the aircraft by tapping $635 million from the overseas contingency operations fund. It would further nix Air Force plans to retire the U-2 spy plane.  The legislation also would restrict an Army plan to transfer AH-64 Apache helicopters from the National Guard to the active component Army during fiscal 2015.

The bill would authorize $15.1 billion for Navy vessels, including unrequested funds for refueling and overhaul of the USS George Washington (CVN-73) aircraft carrier. The bill also would block the Navy from retiring or deactivating any of its cruisers as part of the service’s phased modernization plan.

Personnel Provisions The bill would authorize $31.4 billion for the defense health program and would reject Pentagon attempts to curb growing personnel costs, such as increased Tricare fees and copayments.  The bill supports a 1.8 percent pay increase for military personnel in fiscal 2015, while the administration has proposed a one percent pay hike.The House adopted, by voice vote, a Jackie Speier, D-Calif., amendment that would require the inspectors general of the Defense Department and the individual services to publicly release reports of investigations that confirm misconduct by members of the senior executive service, political appointees or commissioned officers in the armed forces in pay grades O-6 or above.

Sequestration During debate, McKeon cautioned fellow lawmakers, who will take up the task of crafting the next defense authorization bill after he retires, that the worst is yet to come if the across-the-board cuts imposed by sequestration continue.  “While this bill makes tough choices, Congress will be called upon to make impossible choices in years ahead if sequestration is not addressed,” he said.  Smith, too, said sequestration had already adversely impacted military readiness and cautioned that a “reckoning will come.”

 “Put simply, we have a lot less money now than we thought we were going to have,” Smith said. “It will get even smaller if eight more years of sequestration come to pass.”

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