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Monday, May 28, 2012

Pentagon Spending vs Congress: Broken Gov't & War Funding

Congress Wars: Battle for the defense budget

In what is shaping up to be a classic congressional right vs. left fight over defense and war funding, both the House and Senate are gearing up to battle over some expected and not-so-expected items in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.

On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its version of the bill, showing its hand to members of the House of Representatives on what it felt should be authorized for military spending.

The act authorizes spending limits and sets defense policy, but it does not actually appropriate the funds.

The committee version must still pass a full Senate vote. The House signed off on its bill this month. While a date has yet to be announced, both the final House and Senate versions will go through extensive negotiations to hammer out a final version of the legislation, expected in the fall.

Both bills have numerous amendments that will be debated and fought over in the coming months. Keep an eye on these five if you like political fireworks.

Clash of the cash

The first battle will come as no surprise, as the House and Senate versions put out two totally different bottom lines for Pentagon funding. The Democrat-run Senate version, announced Thursday, gives the military $631.4 billion under the president's trimmed-down Pentagon budget. It received full bipartisan support with a unanimous vote to pass it out of the committee.

But the House version passed this month comes in at $642.5 billion. Although it does not seem to be much more than the Senate version, it is over the president's Pentagon budget request, and it triggered a veto threat by the White House.

The measure adds $4 billion to the Pentagon budget, which is already targeted for almost $500 billion in cuts over the next 10 years to help reduce the nation's deficit.

Missile mess

Within the House version is a hotly debated missile defense shield for the East Coast of the United States.

The bill obligates $100 million to plan for the system, which is to be fully established by 2015. The cost of the entire system will be well into the billions.

Proponents, like Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, an ardent missile defense backer, say there is a need for the shield to protect against threats from Russia or Iran.

But House Democrats and Pentagon leaders who are against the plan say there is no threat to the eastern seaboard.

"Today's threats do not require an East Coast missile field, and we do not have plans to do so," Gen. Charles Jacoby, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, told Congress this year.

On Thursday, the Senate chose not to put money toward the plan and instead called for a study on the missile plan, which U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, called the "East Coast fantasy 'Star Wars' base."

Combat for all

Another key item to watch for is how both sides address an amendment in the Senate version that would allow women in the U.S. military to fight alongside their male counterparts on the front lines of war.

The provision, added to the bill last week by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, orders the Pentagon to devise a plan to let women have an active combat role on the battlefield. As of now, the Pentagon bars women from joining the ranks of front-line combat troops.

Last week, the Pentagon announced that it was relaxing parts of the policy of barring women from direct combat positions. Gillibrand's provision would direct the Pentagon to develop plans to remove all of the regulations and open every combat position to female troops.

While the House National Defense Authorization Act does not have a similar provision, there is a separate bill pending in the House of Representatives that could be added to the final version of the bill when both sides come to the negotiating table.

"Though the Pentagon has taken some small steps to remove restrictions on female service, they have not yet made a real commitment to a formal repeal. It's time to do what is right and recognize these women for what they do every day in Afghanistan and around the world," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-California, who introduced the bill in the House.

Abortion debate

What is sure to be a hot-button issue in the coming months is a provision in the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act, lifting the ban on the Department of Defense paying for abortions in cases of rape or incest.

The measure was added by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, a member of the Armed Services Committee, and had bipartisan support in the committee.

"This is about equity," Shaheen said. "Civilian women who depend on the federal government for health insurance - whether they are postal workers or Medicaid recipients - have the right to access affordable abortion care if they are sexually assaulted. It is only fair that the thousands of brave women in uniform fighting to protect our freedoms are treated the same."

"It is an outrage and a national security risk that the women in our military do not have the same basic protections for reproductive health care as women across the U.S.," said Gillibrand, a co-sponsor of the amendment.

Quietly, staffers on the Hill say they fully expect fight between the left and right, especially with some members who face re-election in the fall.

But officials familiar with the issue on the Hill say it may not be an issue at all come negotiation time.

"It's a perennial issue. Almost every year, a similar provision is added, and every time it gets eliminated somewhere in the negotiation process," according to one Hill aide who was not authorized to speak ahead of the negotiations.

The problem with Pakistan

In one of the more unusual pieces of the Senate's National Defense Authorization Act, senators agreed to withhold Pakistan's part of a $1.75 billion aid package because of outrage over the imprisonment of a Pakistani doctor who helped with U.S. efforts to pinpoint Osama bin Laden in last year's deadly raid as well as the continued closure of NATO supply routes into and out of Afghanistan.

The provision calls for the aid package to be conditional on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta certifying that Pakistan opens the supply lines, no longer detains Dr. Shakil Afridi and is not supporting terrorist groups.

On Thursday, another bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee also withheld aid to Pakistan for similar reasons.

When asked whether there was a coordinated effort on the Hill to punish Pakistan through legislation, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said there was not, but there was a lot of anger on the Hill over these issues.

"What it shows is a common outrage, a common response to just about every place you can look," Levin said.

The House bill passed before the outrage in Congress erupted over Pakistan, so it does not contain any similar language.

So as Congress rages about Pakistan this week, it will be interesting to see whether that momentum holds and the Senate Armed Services Committee language stays in the final version of the bill, expected to be voted on by both chambers later this year.

Sources: CNN, Russia Today, Youtube

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