WASHINGTON — A key panel of House and Senate members on Wednesday announced a deal on a massive defense bill, pushing forward a nearly $700 billion plan to raise pay for servicemembers, increase the size of the military, fund new ships and aircrafts and authorize new spending on missile defense.
The negotiated defense budget for fiscal year 2018 includes a 2.4 percent pay increase for servicemembers, necessary retention pay and bonuses and covers costly repairs for two Navy ships involved recently in deadly crashes.
Congressional conference committee members who negotiated the deal lauded the defense bill, also known as the National Defense Authorization Act or NDAA. It authorizes funding for the Department of Defense and national security programs through the Department of Energy.
“We are tremendously proud of this NDAA, which will strengthen our military, provide our troops a pay raise, bolster missile defense, drive innovation in military technology to secure our global advantage, and build on the defense reforms Congress has passed in recent years,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee; Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking member on the Armed Services committee, and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said Wednesday in a joint statement. “Most importantly, this legislation will help reverse the dangerous readiness crisis that is endangering the lives of our men and women in uniform.”
Though the plan has overcome several hurdles already, the move now sends the defense budget to a vote before both chambers and a new fight on how to fund the major increase in military spending.
The proposal surpasses the budget cap of $549 billion for defense spending and will require new congressional action to be enacted. Otherwise, the proposed budget could trigger automatic, across-the-board spending cuts.
The bill is comprised of a base budget of about $626 billion, with $66 billion in a warfighting account not subject to budget caps called the Overseas Contingency Operations fund and another $8 billion for other defense activities.
It also surpassed President Donald Trump’s defense funding request by $26 billion. Earlier this year, the administration proposed a defense budget of $668 billion, a 5 percent increase to last year’s spending plan. Last week, Trump asked to boost his original military funding request.
“We are also proud of the bipartisan process that led to this conference report, which took hard work and thoughtful collaboration from members on both sides of the aisle,” McCain, Reed and Thornberry said in their statement. “As this legislation moves toward final passage and to the president’s desk, we are confident it will continue the bipartisan tradition of supporting the brave men and women of our armed forces and enable them to rise to the challenges of our increasingly dangerous world.”
The budget also passed on some proposals, declining on a House plan for the creation of a Space Corps, a new military service that would be an arm of the Air Force.
The idea drew opposition along the way from several key figures, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The Senate, in their opposition, went as far as including language in their bill prohibiting a Space Corps.
Now, under Wednesday’s deal, the bill directs a study of the matter. House members who were pushing the deal, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., called the move a positive first step.
“We are pleased the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018 takes the first step in fundamentally changing and improving the national security space programs of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force in particular,” Rogers, who is chairman of an Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, and the subcommittee’s ranking member Cooper said in a joint statement.
The defense budget also directs $26.2 billion for 14 new ships and $10.1 billion for the purchase of 90 Joint Strike Fighters, which is 20 more than the administration’s request. It directs another $5.9 billion for Virginia-class submarines, $5.6 billion for Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, $4.4 billion for aircraft carriers, $3.1 billion for Army helicopters and $1.9 billion for procuring 24 F/A-18 Super Hornets.
The plan also increases the military force by adding 7,500 soldiers to the Army and another 1,000 to the Marine Corps. It also increases the Army Reserve force by 500 and adds 500 to the Army National Guard.
The plan also authorizes $141.8 billion for military personnel, including the cost of pay, allowances, bonuses, death benefits and change of station moves. It authorizes another $33.7 billion for the Defense Health Program and re-authorizes 30 types of bonuses and payments linked to recruiting.
It also streamlines the Pentagon administration and details a new No. 3 position that goes into effect at the Pentagon next year for a new chief management officer to direct business reforms. It also formalizes a first-time auditing process for the department and it directs the secretary of defense to address a backlog of 700,000 departmental security clearances.
The defense bill also directs for the funding of repairs to the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain. Both ships were badly damaged in separate, deadly crashes during the summer that left 17 sailors dead.
The overall boost in military funding request comes in the wake of a deadly year for the U.S. military when it comes to readiness and safety concerns.
McCain said during the bill’s previous debate on the Senate floor that 185 servicemembers have died in military accidents in the last three years.
“We are killing more of our own people in training than our enemies are in combat,” McCain said during the September debate.
In July, the House approved a $696 billion defense budget, while the Senate approved a nearly $700 billion plan in September.
Still, many of the efforts must overcome budget caps to move forward.
In September, Congress approved a temporary funding measure that gave Congress at least three months to approve a new overall spending plan for fiscal 2018, which started Oct. 1.
But that also meant a new military budget was on the clock: Congress has until December to come up with a deal to fund its $700 billion defense proposal or it might have to delay its spending plans again.
Congress has been here before. Former President Barack Obama signed the 2017 defense policy plan on Dec. 23, 2016. But faced with another round of delays, a $1.1 trillion omnibus government spending bill that included the defense budget wasn’t approved until May. Until then, military operations were kept afloat by a short-term funding bill — as is the case now.
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