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Though shaping separate versions of a 2004 defense authorization bill, the House and Senate armed services committees were both moving to narrow a perceived military pay gap with the private sector, and to make permanent recent wartime increases in imminent danger pay and family separation allowance.

Many more personnel issues are still to be decided including: benefit gains for reserve component members; how much help Tricare Standard users will get in finding participating physicians; how big will be the increase in active duty and reserve force strength to relieve strain of operations from the war on terrorism and U.S. obligations in Iraq.

Also at stake is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's plan to "transform" management of flag and general officers. It faces a tough fight, perhaps even a quick death, in the Senate. But it has cleared its first hurdle in the House amid a chorus of criticism from Democrats and a sense of unease among Republicans.

The House Armed Services Committee each year unveils key provisions of its defense authorization bill, and votes on amendments, during subcommittee "markup" sessions, which are open to the public. The committee's Total Force Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., met May 7 and endorsed these personnel initiatives for 2004:

• A targeted military pay raise next January as proposed by the Bush administration. It would average 4.1 percent and range from 4.6 to 6.25 percent for mid-grade and senior noncommissioned officers and warrant officers. It would narrow a perceived pay gap of 6.4 percent with the private sector down to 5.5 percent. At a minimum, the Senate is expected to support an identical raise.

• Extension beyond Sept. 30 of two wartime pay increases enacted in the defense supplemental bill signed April 16. The 2004 defense bill of both the House and Senate would make permanent a $150-a-month raise in Family Separation Allowance and a $75-a-month jump in Imminent Danger Pay.

• An increase in active duty forces totaling 6,240 across the Army, Navy and Air Force. This would ease strains from an "excessive" pace of operations, McHugh said.

• Reserve component benefit gains including unlimited access to commissaries for reservists and family members; expanded entitlement to hazardous duty pays to match active duty eligibility; a new special pay for members of Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams.

• An outreach and assistance program for Tricare Standard beneficiaries, to help locate participating health providers.

The subcommittee also approved giving the president and secretary of defense more flexibility to manage general and flag officers, both active and reserve. The plan would end time-in-service ceilings on star-rank officers; allow up to 40-year careers; relax a three-year time-in-grade requirement for senior officers to serve and still retire at that rank; raise maximum age of officers by six years, to 68, with individual secretarial deferments to age 72; increase retired pay for those who serve beyond 30 years.

Republicans used their majority status on the subcommittee to defeat amendments by Democrats to set aside or water down the provisions. But they faced withering criticism that they are acting "irresponsibly," ignoring their oversight obligations and rushing to please a defense secretary who "intimidates" them even more than usual following the U.S. victory in Iraq.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., noted that Rumsfeld's transformation plan was delivered to Congress the day before a two-week Easter recess, and then inserted in the defense bill for mark up a week after Congress returned.

"We're proposing to radically change how long the most senior members of the military serve, and we have no idea how this will affect the other ranks," Tauscher said. No hearing was held with officers who would be impacted, she said, and nothing seems to motivate such dramatic change "other than the whim of the secretary."

Rep. Vic Snyder, the panel's ranking Democrat, said senior Republicans are worried too. One of them asked Snyder to imagine how Republicans would have "gone ballistic" had President Clinton proposed such a change and lawmakers had a week to study legislative language.

A Democrat who calls himself conservative, Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.) said Republicans should imagine not how Rumsfeld would use the new authority but "the powers a Les Aspin could have had under this provision." Aspin was Clinton's first secretary of defense.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was making up its own defense bill in closed session. But Republicans on that committee were ready to block the officer management package, sources said.

"We just flat disagree with a lot of the provisions," said a Senate committee source. "The existing set of [officer management] laws is more than adequate ... To toss out a lot of those, to just delete from the law restrictions and terms and ceilings that are part of the success story of [officer management] over the last 20 years is very questionable."

Rumsfeld's plan would allow him to extend officers in the most senior post years beyond current limits, and not require Senate reconfirmation. That prospect irks senators of both parties.

"Existing law is quite flexible enough to allow the kind of talent Secretary Rumsfeld and his department have in mind [and they can] serve, basically, as long as the nation needs them," the Senate source said. "Yes, you may need to get extended congressional advice and consent. But shared power is kind of what it's all about now, isn't it."

— Comments and suggestions are welcomed. Write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111 or send e-mail to: milupdate@aol.com

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