House panel OKs $601 billion defense bill

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 8, 2014 at 10:26 am •  Published: May 8, 2014
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The A-10 Warthog, military bases scattered around the country and the generous housing allowance for service members survived the budget knife early Thursday morning as a House panel rebuffed Pentagon pleas and approved a $601 billion defense bill that spares ships, planes and benefits.

On a unanimous vote, the Armed Services Committee backed the legislation that authorizes overall spending for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The blueprint spared excess military bases, the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane, Navy cruisers and an 11th aircraft carrier as parochial interests prevailed in an election year.

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.

In an all-day, all-night session, the committee voted overwhelmingly to provide $635 million for the Air Force's A-10 close-air support aircraft, rejecting the service's plan to retire the plane. The A-10 has a strong coalition of backers in Congress, and Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., secured bipartisan votes for his measure.

The bill also prevents the Pentagon from moving ahead with another round of base closures to shutter excess facilities and rejects any Pentagon effort to force service members to pay slightly more in out-of-pocket costs for off-base housing.

The panel's actions came a day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appealed for fiscal restraint.

"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," Hagel said.

The overall spending level 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. That forced lawmakers to make tradeoffs, pinching the budget for operations and maintenance by $1.4 billion to cover the cost of favored ships and planes.

The hours of debate Wednesday also produced fierce policy discussions on topics ranging from sexual assault in the ranks to whether sailors and Marines should be allowed to smoke.

In a win for the Pentagon, the committee endorsed leaving the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders.

In an emotionally charged debate, the panel narrowly rejected a measure that would have stripped commanders of the longstanding authority to decide whether to pursue a case, especially if it was related to sexual assault, and hand the job to seasoned military lawyers. The vote was 34-28.

Pentagon leaders vigorously oppose the change in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, arguing that commanders should have more responsibility, not less, for the conduct of the men and women they lead in war and peacetime. Female lawmakers in the Senate and House have questioned whether the military's mostly male leadership understands differences between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive justice.

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