WASHINGTON — U.S. House and Senate negotiators reached agreement Monday on a $716 billion defense authorization bill that includes a sizable boost in military end strength, more ships and planes than the White House asked for, and a compromise on U.S. sanctions on Russia.
The agreement comes months ahead of Congress’ typical schedule for the sweeping defense policy measure. The legislation has been finalized by Congress for 57 consecutive years but not passed before the start of the new fiscal year in the past decade.
The House is expected to vote on the deal this week, and the Senate possibly in August. From there, President Donald Trump is expected to sign it into law.
Senior committee aides said the speed of the work was designed to avoid political fights and unrelated policy debates heading into the November midterm election
The measure authorizes a base defense budget of $639 billion and $69 billion more for overseas contingency operations. The totals match previously agreed upon spending plans for fiscal 2019, but break with administration priorities in a host of areas.
Hardware. For aviation, lawmakers backed administration plans for 77 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, with limitations on software upgrades pending cost and schedule information.
The bill would back the Air Force plan to kill its JSTARS recapitalization program while restricting retirement of the legacy E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System. It requires the Air Force to develop a plan to sustain the aircraft until the follow-on program is ready.
For the Navy, the bill funds 13 ships — three beyond the president’s budget request — to include two Virginia-class submarines, three littoral combat ships; an additional Ford-class aircraft carrier, two TAO-205 oilers, one expeditionary sea base, and one T-ATS towing, salvage and rescue ship.
The bill contains $200 million to expand the submarine industrial base and to aid in the advanced procurement of the Columbia-class sub in 2022 and 2023, according to House aides.
Personnel. The legislation calls for a 2.6 percent pay raise for troops starting next January, a mark agreed upon by both House and Senate lawmakers in their separate drafts.
Conference committee members agreed upon end-strength increases in line with the White House’s requests for military might. The Army’s end strength will grow by about 4,000 soldiers, the Navy’s by 7,500 sailors, the Air Force by 4,000 airmen and the Marine Corps by about 100 Marines.
The final agreement also includes House-backed language requiring the secretary of defense to certify that any military units or vehicles to be used in any national military parades or displays will not harm current service missions or readiness.
Senate lawmakers successfully argued provisions that would give each of the services more flexibility with officer promotion rules, including changing promotion timelines and personnel limits on specialty skills.
Turkey F-35s. The bill bars delivery of the F-35 to Turkey until the U.S. government submits an assessment of the U.S.-Turkey relationship. It also requires an assessment of the operational and counterintelligence risks posed by that country’s planned purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air and missile defense system to weapons systems and platforms operated jointly with Turkey, including the F-35.
The bill includes a sense of Congress calling on Turkey to release “wrongfully detained” U.S. citizens Andrew Brunson and Serkan Golge, according to a bill summary.
Russia sanctions. The bill includes a compromise waiver under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, that provides leniency for strategic partners and allies purchasing Russian military equipment, so long as they are taking steps to wean themselves from it. A Democratic summary of the bill says the measure is more stringent from the Republican-backed provision in the House version of the bill
China. The conference report dropped a Senate-backed provision banning Chinese telecom giant ZTE from doing business with both the government and private sector in favor of a the House-backed provision that would ban ZTE from working with the government.
The bill would strengthen the interagency committee that reviews deals between foreign investors and U.S.-based businesses for national security concerns. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, ot CFIUS, would receive broader abilities to block transactions with Chinese companies that could pose a national security risk.
Wildlife protections. The bill excludes a House-backed provision, opposed by Democrats, that would have prohibited the greater sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken from being listed under the Endangered Species Act for a period of 10 years. It also maintains the endangered status of the American burying beetle.
The bill would require that the Navy seek government approval every seven years for plans that potentially harm marine mammals — less than the current five-years but more frequently than the 10 years proposed by the House.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.