Winners, losers in $612B defense bill

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The $612 billion defense bill approved by the House Armed Services Committee this week is a major victory for proponents of two jet programs and lawmakers arguing the military must reform its policies on sexual assault.

Passage of the bill sets up a floor vote the week of May 12 and possibly difficult negotiations with the Senate, which is working on its own bill.

Lawmakers are working to get a final bill done by before the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30. If they meet that goal, it would complete the process much earlier, and smoother, than the last few years.Here’s a look at the biggest winners to emerge on the House side, as well as some of the losers.


Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.)

The freshman lawmaker has made defending the A-10 “Warthog” fleet, of which roughly a third is based in her district, a main legislative issue, and the close air support jet emerged from the markup alive.

The new bill sets aside roughly $683 million for the A-10 that will keep the fleet in the air for another year.

McSally, a retired Air Force colonel and A-10 commander, beat back a compromise proposal by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), himself an Iraq War veteran, which would have retired 164 of the service’s 283 A-10s.

It’s a huge win for McSally, who is vulnerable in next year’s election. She won her seat in 2014 by a mere 167 votes.

Her fight is far from over.

The Air Force has sought to mothball the popular A-10 and there may be more attempts to cut it back as the defense bill moves forward. But this week was a clear victory for McSally, who has gained a lot of national attention with her advocacy.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

The costliest weapons program in U.S. history needed some good news after a string of negative reports by the Government Accountability Office and other watchdogs.

It got a shot in the arm when the GOP-controlled committee rejected by voice vote an amendment from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) that would have cut its funding.

Speier sought to reduce a $1 billion funding increase proposed by Thornberry by $589 million.

Lockheed Martin, the plane’s manufacturer, circulated a flier to members urging them to vote down the proposal and it paid off.

If the bill becomes law, the defense giant will produce 63 F-35 jets next year, a boost from the 38 it produced this year, according to the House Armed Services Committee.

Military sexual assault reformers

A bipartisan contingent of the 63-member panel inserted provisions in the defense blueprint designed to boost protections for victims of military sexual assault.

While Speier failed to win approval of an amendment removing oversight for assault cases from the military chain of command, she and other lawmakers successfully added well over a dozen amendments on the topic to the 2016 NDAA.

Besides Speier, lawmakers who took on the hot button issue included Republican Reps. Joe Heck (Nev.) and Mike Turner (Ohio) and Democratic Reps. Niki Tsongas (Mass.) and Loretta Sanchez (Calif.).

Turner and Tsongas — co-chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus — received approval for a bill that, among other things, gives DOD’s civilian employees access to a key counseling program and requires the Pentagon to create a comprehensive strategy to prevent retaliation and protect those who experience it.

Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas)

The new Armed Services chairman finished the markup on schedule and was able to keep reforms to the Pentagon’s acquisition system — one of his top goals for the bill.

The legislation would streamline the Defense Department’s purchasing bureaucracy by eliminating the red tape that program managers have to go through to make purchases. Thornberry argues that this would save taxpayer funds and get cutting-edge weapons to the battlefield faster.

By taking up the bill and voted on earlier than in the past, Thornberry wants to avoid the scramble that has accompanied negotiations over the NDAA the last couple years.

House and Senate lawmakers have rushed to produce a policy roadmap for the president’s signature before Dec. 31, leaving members on both sides crying foul that their priorities are not being met.

Thornberry wanted to get the bill done in an efficient fashion so that the panel itself can return to more forward-looking oversight of the Pentagon. The timing also serves as a hedge in the event that President Obama vetoes the bill, lawmakers will have sufficient time to go back and tweak the legislation.


President Obama

The White House on Tuesday issued a statement skewering the defense bill, but even Democrats seemed to largely ignore the administration.

The statement, released the night before the Armed Services panel began its mark-up, took lawmakers to task for proposing to bust the spending caps put in place by sequestration. It also criticized language restricting the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison and rejecting reforms, such as new base closures.

The language opposed by the White House survived, and the final bill passed in a bipartisan 60-2 vote.

Air Force

Days before the markup, the Air Force warned it would have to mothball its F-16 jets if the panel did not retire the A-10 fleet.

The undated talking points were circulated to panel aides, only to be rescinded by the Air Force the day the committee convened to draw up the policy roadmap.

The dire prediction failed to sway lawmakers.

Opponents of retirement reform and women in combat roles

A bipartisan group of panel members, many of them veterans, were outmatched in an effort to slow down a proposal to revamp the military’s retirement system.

The plan would allow troops to accrue retirement benefits after two years of service in a 401(k)-type plan.

Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), an Iraq War veteran, put forward an amendment that called for a one-year review of the revamp. He attracted some support, but Thornberry argued their plan would kill the reforms.

Meanwhile, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) was successful in winning adoption of an amendment to modify a 30-day waiting period before military services open up certain combat jobs for women.

The greater sage-grouse

A provision that blocks the Interior Department from putting the greater sage-grouse on the endangered species list nearly brought the panel’s mark-up process to a halt.

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) sought to take out the provision, which was in Thornberry’s mark of the bill. But GOP members argued that the bird’s large population hampers military facilities throughout the country and that putting it on the list would prevent states from being able to handle the issue locally.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said keeping the language in the NDAA “makes us look a little silly,” possible as “silly as the dancing Sage-Grouse.”

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