WASHINGTON — House Republicans are sparing Cold War-era aircraft, military bases and ships from Pentagon cuts as even tea partyers abandon their drive to slash federal spending in an election year.
The House Armed Services Committee plunged into a marathon session on Wednesday to craft a $601 billion defense bill that would authorize spending on planes, personnel, weapons and ships in the budget year that begins Oct. 1.
The overall spending matches a deficit-driven, bipartisan budget agreement, and reflects a new phase for the Pentagon after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Working within spending constraints, the Pentagon is seeking flexibility to ensure service members are ready to fight and the military can handle emerging threats.
“Sustaining our edge in the face of new strategic and fiscal challenges will require Congress’ partnership in making tough choices, always looking at our broader national interests instead of narrow constituencies,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said this week.
Lawmakers largely ignored those words.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., a former pilot and tea party favorite elected in 2012, won voice vote approval for saving three of seven AWACS aircraft, the airborne warning and control system that is based at Tinker Air Force Base in his home state.
“Think of the AWACS as the quarterback of the Air Force’s football team,” Bridenstine told the committee in arguing for his measure that rejected Pentagon plans to reduce the fleet from 31 to 24.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee, complained that sparing the planes would undermine the military, taking the money from spare and repair parts. He said Congress needs to make the tough choices now, otherwise U.S. forces will be ill-prepared to fight.
“These are the types of choices that need to be made,” Smith said.
Bridenstine insisted that the “parochial interest is the United States of America.”
One day after a federal report warned of the dangers of man-made global warming, the GOP-led committee voted for provisions in the defense bill that would thwart Pentagon efforts to develop alternative biofuels to keep the military operating. Republicans outnumbered Democrats in backing two amendments by Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas.
The committee rejected a Navy plan to put 11 cruisers in a reduced operating status, with Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., pleading to keep the ships at sea. The panel backed a bipartisan amendment that would provide money for upgrade of two cruisers and bar the Pentagon from retiring or placing any cruisers in an inactive status.
That elicited an impassioned speech from Smith, one of the few voices in the committee warning that it was short-sighted for the panel not to make the tough budget choices.
“Just rob another fund,” Smith said of the committee action to pay for the ships and aircraft.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the committee, bemoaned the dilemma, saying his goal this year was “to hold onto as much of the stuff and as much of the training.” McKeon, who is retiring from the House, said he hoped that next year lawmakers would recognize the devastating impact of the automatic spending cuts that the federal government faces over the next decade and its impact on the military.
Deficit hawks in the Republican ranks, however, have pressed for deep cuts and have shown an unwillingness to undo them.
The overall bill rejects the Pentagon’s request for another round of military base closures to shutter unnecessary facilities and spares the U-2 spy plane, developed in 1955 at the height of the Cold War. It cuts money from operations and maintenance — some $1.4 billion less than President Obama requested — to maintain an 11th aircraft carrier and spare other programs and benefits.
The committee rebuffs any Pentagon effort to force service members to pay slightly more in out-of-pocket costs for off-base housing and slightly increase health care expenses for military families and retirees.
Amid the clamor in Congress, the bill also would force the Pentagon to keep the A-10 Warthog in storage rather than retire the plane.
The Pentagon also wanted to reduce the $1.4 billion in direct subsidies to military commissaries where military families can buy name-brand groceries and other items at reduced cost. The bill would provide $100 million of the $200 million requested for the commissaries in the upcoming budget year.
Overall, the legislation would provide $495.8 billion for the core defense budget, $17.9 billion for energy programs within Pentagon spending and $79.4 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations.
Responding to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its continued aggression, the bill would prohibit funds for bilateral military-to-military contact or cooperation between the United States and Russia “until the secretary of defense, in consultation with the secretary of state, certifies to the appropriate congressional committees that Russia is respecting the sovereignty of Ukrainian territory, no longer acting inconsistently with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and in compliance with the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.”
The full House is expected to consider the legislation the week of May 19. The bill would have to be reconciled with a still-to-be-written Senate version.