House Panel Backs $554 Billion Defense Bill Defying Obama

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.Photographer:Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. House Armed Services Committee approved a $554 billion defense bill, refashioning a spending plan that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said should be passed without change.

The defense authorization measure, agreed to early today by a vote of 56-5, is about $4 billion more than President Barack Obama’s administration said could be spent for fiscal 2013 to stay within deficit-reduction targets.

The committee reversed Pentagon proposals to curtail or slow weapons programs, including Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Global Hawk drone and General Dynamics Corp.’s Abrams battle tanks as well as Virginia-class submarines built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. and the Electric Boat unit of General Dynamics.

Acting hours after Obama said in an interview that he now supports same-sex marriage, the Republican-led committee adopted a provision to block such marriages and “marriage-like” ceremonies on military bases. Last year, Obama ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military.

The defense legislation, which the full House will consider as soon as next week, also seeks to slow the pace of military personnel reductions and blocks new rounds of military base closings in the U.S.

‘Deserve the Best’

“Our troops deserve the best training, equipment, and leadership in the world, and I’m proud that our members consistently put aside personal politics to fulfill that sacred obligation to our armed forces,” Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who leads the panel, said in a statement. McKeon called the bill “an incremental step to address the military’s $46 billion decrease” from previous defense budget plans.

Additionally, the House panel approved $88.5 billion -- the amount requested -- for war operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The Pentagon plans to cut $487 billion over a decade from previously planned defense spending and may face an additional $500 billion in automatic cuts if Congress and the president don’t agree on ways to reduce the nation’s deficit.

While the panel endorsed the Pentagon’s request to buy 29 F-35 stealth jets made by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp., it is also pressing the Defense Department to disclose by Dec. 31 the date by which it expects the three versions of the fighter planes to become operational. The Pentagon requested $9.1 billion for the F-35, its most expensive program, including $6.1 billion for procurement.

New Long-Range Bomber

The panel backed the full budget request of $292 million for research and development of a new long-range strike bomber, attaching a provision pressing the Air Force to ensure that the plane can carry nuclear weapons as soon as it is operational.

The Air Force plans to spend $6.3 billion through 2017 on developing the bomber, the first since Northrop Grumman was awarded the contract for the B-2 in 1981.

The defense panel overrode Army plans to suspend production of upgraded Abrams tanks built by Falls Church, Virginia-based General Dynamics. The committee added $181 million to the Army’s budget, for a total of $255.4 million, to keep building the tanks and converting them into the latest M1A2 model at the plant in Lima, Ohio.

Global Hawk

The committee’s measure also would block the Pentagon’s plan to retire one version of the Global Hawk drone by Northrop Grumman, also based in Falls Church, Virginia, and require that the secretary of the Air Force take “all actions necessary” to keep the so-called Global Hawk Block 30 operating through 2014.

The Pentagon proposed truncating purchases of the Global Hawk variant and putting the drones it had already bought into storage. Air Force officials said those drones are more expensive to operate and have less sensing capacity than Lockheed Martin’s older U-2 spy planes. The Defense Department has projected savings of $2.5 billion over five years from cutting short the Block 30 version.

The House panel would authorize an additional $263 million, for a total of $338.3 million, to fund continued operations of the Block 30 drones. The Air Force spent $3.4 billion on the development and procurement of the 18 aircraft, according to Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy.

Virginia-Class Submarines

The Armed Services Committee backed the production of two Virginia-class submarines in 2014 that the Navy struck from fiscal 2014 plans. The panel recommended adding a down payment, or “advance procurement,” of materials and added $778 million for that purpose.

The Navy originally planned to buy two Virginia-class submarines a year, with the work split between Huntington Ingalls, based in Newport News, Virginia, and Groton, Connecticut-based Electric Boat. Instead, the Pentagon now proposes buying one in fiscal 2014 and delaying another until fiscal 2018.

Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system also stands to gain as much as $680 million in U.S. aid through 2015 under the committee’s legislation for the system built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.

Some provisions added by the House committee may become items for negotiation with the Senate. The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to start considering its version of the defense authorization bill on May 22.

The $554 billion in national defense funding includes budget authorization for military construction and Energy Department defense programs.

The bill is H.R. 4310.

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