House, Senate plans fund carrier refueling, raises

By Bill Bartel
The Virginian-Pilot

A U.S. Senate committee and the House on Thursday endorsed separate defense spending plans for 2015 that both fund the refueling of the aircraft carrier George Washington at Newport News Shipbuilding and reject Pentagon requests to cut subsidies for commissaries and trim some health care benefits.

Defense policy bills approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House also turn down the Pentagon’s request for base closings.

But the two chambers disagree on military pay.

The senate panel supported the Obama administration’s plan to give all but admirals and general officers a 1 percent pay raise next year. The House wants a 1.8 percent raise for all military personnel.

While the chambers will have to agree on one spending plan for 2015, the bipartisan, mutual support for preserving many programs and benefits indicates the Obama administration will have a difficult time getting Congress to follow its lead.

Reps. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia Beach; Randy Forbes, R-Cheseapeake; and Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, all voted for the House bill.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate committee, supported his panel’s budget plan, saying it sends a “clear signal” to the Obama administration and others in Congress to not shrink the Navy’s carrier fleet to 10 ships.

“This was the right thing to do for the defense of our nation, it’s consistent with the statutory requirement for an 11-carrier Navy, and it’s great for the shipyard in Newport News,” Kaine said in a statement.

The George Washington’s midlife overhaul has been in doubt because the Pentagon’s initial budget request did not include hundreds of millions of dollars needed in 2015 for the multiyear refueling project. The Obama administration has said that unless sequestration – a 10-year reduction in defense and domestic spending – is resolved, there won’t be enough money to do the job.

The Senate and House bills also would nix the Pentagon’s plan to require new Tricare fees and higher copayments for dependent family members and retirees for some medical care.

The legislation also ignores the administration’s request to cut a federal subsidy to stateside commissaries to save about $200 million next year.

Kaine said the Senate panel shouldn’t tackle pay or benefit issues until a special congressional panel that is reviewing all benefits completes its work in February.

“I want to see the report on all the items including the commissaries before we start cherry-picking items and making cuts,” he said.

Pentagon officials have warned that personnel expenses, particularly medical care, are among the fastest rising costs for the Defense Department.

Slowing their growth, officials said, will free up money for training and other readiness needs.

Several provisions of the Senate’s proposal were unavailable late Thursday for comparison with the House plan.

It’s not clear whether the Senate panel agrees with a House budget proposal to block the Navy’s plans to mothball several ships. The Navy wants to save $4 billion by taking 11 of its 22 guided missile cruisers, including some based in Norfolk, out of service and gradually modernizing them before putting them back into the fleet.

It was also not immediately clear whether the Senate proposal would keep intact the planned overhauls of Navy ships – other than carriers – in Hampton Roads shipyards. The yards and their subcontractors and suppliers employ thousands in the region. The House bill would keep that maintenance work on schedule.

The next step is for the full Senate to consider its committee’s defense bill. If approved, House and Senate negotiators would attempt to hammer out a compromise that would be considered by both chambers and sent to President Barack Obama for his signature or veto.

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