House to Vote on $554 Billion Defense Bill, Defying Obama

The Republican-controlled U.S. House is set to vote as soon as today on a $554 billion defense bill that President Barack Obama has threatened to veto if it impedes the Pentagon’s new defense strategy.

The defense authorization measure is about $4 billion more than the Democratic Obama administration said could be spent for fiscal 2013 to stay within deficit-reduction targets.

The House Armed Services Committee last week rejected Pentagon proposals to curtail or slow weapons programs. They include 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.

“It’s Congress’s constitutional obligation to ensure this new force posture is not a hollow one,” Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who is chairman of the armed services panel, said on the House floor as he kicked off debate on the 2013 defense authorization bill this week. “To that end, we provide modest increases in combat capabilities with particular emphasis on our Navy fleet and critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms.”

Obama in January presented a revamped U.S. military strategy for an era of budget cuts that pledges to emphasize the Asia-Pacific region and space and cyber capabilities while preserving missions such as defeating al-Qaeda. The Obama administration, as part of the strategy, is seeking a reduction in the number of military personnel as it tries to cut $487 billion from the defense budget over the next decade.

Platform for Debate

The 2013 defense authorization bill, which sets spending targets and policy for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, seeks to slow the pace of personnel reductions in the military and would block new rounds of military base closings in the U.S.

The legislation also would block same-sex marriages and “marriage-like” ceremonies on military bases. The panel agreed on the provision last week within hours of Obama saying that he supports same-sex marriage. Last year, Obama ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military.

Indefinite Detention

The House measure backs indefinite detention without trial of terrorism suspects, including U.S. citizens, captured on U.S. soil. A coalition of Democrats and Republicans failed today to roll back existing defense policy.

The coalition, led by Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, sought to include a provision in the bill to allow for terrorism suspects seized on U.S. soil to be handled by civilian courts and not in military custody.

“To give the president the power to take away a person’s freedom and lock them up, potentially simply based on allegations, without due process, and without the civil liberties protected by our Constitution, is an extraordinary step,” Smith said in a statement today.

Final Passage

En route to final passage, the House will have debated more than 100 amendments, including failed calls for an end to the war in Afghanistan and blocking assistance funds to Pakistan. The debate on the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s role in the stability of its neighbor preceded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit this weekend in Chicago where the U.S. will press allies to stick to a plan of withdrawing combat troops by the end of 2014.

The House yesterday backed a provision that would prohibit the Defense Department from awarding a contract to supply helicopters to the Afghan security forces to any entity “controlled, directed or influenced” by a state that has supplied weapons to Syria or a state-sponsor of terrorism.

The Pentagon has said it’s in a bind, with nowhere to turn for helicopters needed by Afghanistan’s air force except Russia, a top arms supplier to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

The U.S. Army has a $375 million contract to buy 21 Russian-made MI-17 helicopters for the Afghans from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-run arms trader, Pentagon Undersecretary for Policy James Miller said in a March 30 letter to lawmakers. The UN estimates that Assad’s regime has killed more than 9,000 people since an uprising against his rule began, two months before the Pentagon contracted for the Russian-made helicopters.

Military Helicopters

The House provision was sponsored by Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat. United Technologies Corp., which builds several of the U.S. military’s helicopters including the Black Hawk, is based in DeLauro’s state.

The House armed services panel approved $88.5 billion as requested for war operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The war funds are in addition to the $554 billion base bill that includes budget authority for military construction and Energy Department defense programs.

Lawmakers including Representative John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, unsuccessfully targeted Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, seeking to eliminate the vertical-take-off-and-landing variant of the aircraft. At a total cost of $382 billion, the F-35 program was designed to produce multiple aircraft variants and is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program. The House rejected Conyers’s amendment yesterday on a voice vote.

While the armed services panel endorsed the Pentagon’s request to buy 29 F-35 stealth jets made by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, it is 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 in the 2013 budget.

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 would block the Pentagon’s plan to retire one version of the Global Hawk drone by Northrop Grumman, 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 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 operations of the Block 30 drones. The Air Force spent $3.4 billion on 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 had 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 proposes buying one in fiscal 2014 and delaying another until fiscal 2018.

Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system 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 panel 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 bill is H.R. 4310.

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