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Senate defense bill goes for final vote

The U.S. Capitol.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By CLAUDIA GRISALES | Stars and Stripes | Published: September 18, 2017

WASHINGTON — Senators are poised to approve a massive $700 billion defense bill Monday night, setting the stage for a budget fight on how to fund a major increase in military spending.

The plan, like its counterpart in the House, surpasses budget caps of $549 billion for defense spending and will require new congressional action to be enacted. Without it, the effort could trigger automatic, across-the-board budget cuts.

Opponents have already thwarted earlier efforts to lift or repeal the caps. Among them, Democrats are angling for non-defense spending increases in exchange for a larger defense deal.

“Democrats are thinking they are going to have more leverage” when a budget fight comes later this year, said Lauren Fish, a defense strategies research associate for the Washington think tank Center for a New American Security. “It’s a political game to what is a very serious budgetary problem.”

There’s plenty at stake. For example, the Senate’s version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act proposes pay raises for servicemembers, funding of new ships and aircrafts and boosting missile defense as part of a larger effort to address years of cutbacks and readiness concerns.

Some lawmakers have said the defense cuts have cost the lives of servicemembers. For example, 185 servicemembers have died in military accidents in the last three years, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said last week during the bill’s debate on the Senate floor.

Among the servicemembers killed, the Navy lost 17 sailors in the summer in separate collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain.

“We are killing more of our own people in training than our enemies are in combat,” McCain said.

Molly Reynolds, a governance studies fellow at Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington, said lawmakers will need to address the larger defense budget since it’s part of a bigger budget fight.

“I still expect that Congress will reach a deal on the spending caps at some point this fall,” Reynolds said.

Daniel Mitchell, co-founder and chairman at the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, also suspects that a budget cap deal is ahead, which is a concern for him and others who are concerned with government spending hikes.

“The caps for defense will be raised,” he said. “Only unsettled issues are how much and whether (non-defense spending gets an) equal increase.”

In July, the House approved a $696 billion defense budget. If the Senate version is approved Monday, it will send both bills to conference committee to hash out their differences.

The Senate defense bill has already seen its share of setbacks during the summer, and it wasn’t clear lawmakers would tackle it because of larger priorities to fund a new overall, annual budget starting Oct. 1. But a surprise deal reached between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders earlier this month put a temporary funding measure in place until December, buying lawmakers several more months to address the defense bill, among other matters.

After hours of floor debate this week, members ended further discussion on the defense bill Thursday, putting the measure up for a final floor vote Monday. The move forced hundreds of amendments to be shuttered in the process, including proposals to repeal the war authorizations in Afghanistan and Iraq, a new round of base closures and a plan to prevent the ban of transgender military members.

An amendment by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to repeal automatic spending cuts triggered by a defense budget that surpasses budget caps also failed.

Those failed proposals are now setting the stage for separate, new legislative plans that could also be addressed in the coming months.

The Senate defense bill slated to be approved tracks closely with the version passed out of McCain’s Armed Services Committee, addressing personnel, infrastructure, Pentagon management and defense strategy issues.

Pay, benefits for servicemembers

For now, the Senate defense bill proposes a 2.1 pay hike for servicemembers.

Overall, the plan would authorize $141.5 billion in military personnel spending on pay, allowances, bonuses and other benefits.

It would also direct $33.7 billion for the defense health program, $25 million in aid to educational agencies with military dependent children and $1 million to a pilot program to boost military spousal employment opportunities. It would also enact new measures aimed at improving child-care services for military families.

Money for aircrafts, ships

The Senate spending plan also directs $10.6 billion to purchase 94 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircrafts.

It also allocates $25 billion to purchase 13 new ships. That includes $5.5 billion in destroyers and $3.1 billion in submarines.

Streamlining Pentagon management

The Senate proposal, which was approved unanimously by the Senate Armed Services Committee, also lays out a new plan to boost efficiency among the Pentagon’s rankings.

For example, it details and expands the role of a new, incoming chief management officer, who will be the third highest Pentagon official and oversea business operations. It also looks to cut several positions, such as reducing the number of deputy assistant secretaries by 20 percent and cutting senior executive personnel by 10 percent, among other efforts.

Missile defense strategy

The plan also authorizes $8.5 billion for the Missile Defense Agency. That’s $630 million more than was requested by the Trump administration.

Supporters have said this plan is key in the wake of growing threats from North Korea and elsewhere.

In the wake of amendments that failed to make it into the Senate defense bill, lawmakers contend they could bring a slew of new proposals to the floor as a result.

For example, a failed bipartisan amendment by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that would have prevented a military transgender ban now has a new sponsor. On Friday, McCain joined Gillibrand to announce a new legislative effort to thwart a transgender military ban.

Also among the failed proposals that could revisit the Senate floor is a new move to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force approved by Congress in 2001 and 2002 to authorize wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A divided Senate on Wednesday rejected the proposal by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., with opponents expressing concerns it didn’t go far enough by offering a new authorization to address current, ongoing wars. McCain said such a plan would let Congress play a bigger role in overseas conflicts today.

“I’ve been working with several senators and we are trying to put something together,” McCain said of the new plan. And Wednesday’s debate gave “some momentum to it. …We’ve been talking about this for years. And this is going to give impetus to that.”

grisales.claudia@stripes.com
Twitter: @cgrisales

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