The House defied the Pentagon on Thursday, overwhelmingly backing a $601 billion defense authorization bill that saves the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane, military bases and Navy cruisers despites warnings that it will undercut military readiness.
A White House veto threat – reiterated just hours before the vote – had little impact in an election year as lawmakers embraced the popular measure that includes a 1.8 percent pay raise for the troops and adds up to hundreds of thousands of jobs back home. The vote was 325-98 for the legislation, with 216 Republicans and 109 Democrats backing the bill.
Hours later, the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee announced the completion of its version of the bill that backs several of the Pentagon proposals while breaking with the administration on some weapons.
Most notably, the Senate panel “created a path to close Guantanamo,” said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a long-sought goal of President Barack Obama. Under a provision of the bill, the administration would have to produce a comprehensive plan for transferring terror suspects from the U.S. naval facility in Cuba that would be subject to a congressional vote.
The Senate panel backed the administration on some personnel benefits and a 1 percent pay raise for the military, while breaking with the administration by sparing the A-10 Warthog close-support plane and an aircraft carrier.
Certain to frustrate the administration was a provision that would authorize the military to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels battling forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
The Senate bill must be reconciled with the House version.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, defended his House bill and rejected the suggestion that the measure was a “sop to parochial interests,” arguing it makes “the tough decisions that put the troops first.”
But the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, complained that the House rejected the Pentagon’s cost-saving proposals and came up with no alternatives.
“We ducked every difficult decision,” Smith said.
With the ending of two wars and diminishing budgets, the Pentagon had proposed retiring the U-2 and the A-10, taking 11 Navy cruisers out of the normal rotation for modernization and increasing out-of-pocket costs for housing and health care.
Republicans, even tea partyers who came to Congress demanding deep cuts in federal spending, and Democrats rejected the Pentagon budget, sparing the aircraft, ships and troop benefits.
An increasingly antagonistic White House issued a veto threat on Monday, and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough reinforced that message in a private meeting with House Democrats on Tuesday morning. Late Wednesday, the White House issued another veto threat over restrictions in the bill on President Barack Obama’s ability to transfer terror suspects from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The full-throated message had little influence.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., highlighted her vote for the bill and its importance to her home state, where more than 150,000 have defense or defense-related jobs. Her colleague, Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., praised the A-10 Warthog, which trains in Tucson.
In committee, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., a former pilot and tea party favorite elected in 2012, spared three of seven AWACS aircraft based at Tinker Air Force Base in his home state.
The House engaged in a spirited debate over post-Sept. 11 laws and practices, and whether they are overly broad and still viable nearly 13 years after the terror attacks. Lawmakers pressed to sunset the authorization given to the president to use military force, to end the indefinite detention of terror suspects captured on U.S. soil and to close the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The House rejected all three amendments to change current law.
To address the pervasive problem of sexual assault in the military, the bill would change the military rules of evidence to prohibit the accused from using good military character as defense in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime.
The “good soldier defense” could encompass a defendant’s military record of reliability, dependability, professionalism and reputation as an individual who could be counted on in war and peacetime.
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.