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The Senate Armed Services Committee wasn't fond of the Pentagon fiscal 2015 budget proposal, but its members liked it more than their House colleagues did.
In their draft of the annual defense authorization bill, Senate committee members rejected Defense Department plans to retire the Air Force's A-10 fleet, drop the aircraft carrier fleet below 11, overhaul the Tricare system and reduce the commissary benefit. The moves are in step with House opposition to those ideas, proposed in the name of long-term cost savings for DoD.
But the Senate went along with Pentagon plans for a capped 1 percent pay raise for troops next year, a reduction in housing allowances over the next five years, end-strength cuts of more than 50,000 service members next year, and Army plans to transfer Apache helicopters from the Guard to the active force — all moves that the House had earlier rejected.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the decisions come "at a difficult period of tight budgets" and acknowledged that reconciling those issues with House members will involve more disheartening debates.
The Senate committee's authorization bill carries a price tag of about $514 billion, but does not include a placeholder for overseas contingency funds. House members had included almost $80 billion in their version of the bill to pay for ongoing costs related to Afghanistan and other international missions.
Unlike the House, the Senate authorization draft includes language that would allow the president to close detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, provided he first gives Congress a clear plan of how prisoners would be transferred to other facilities.
Under that plan, lawmakers would have an opportunity to vote on and potentially block the closing, unless the president vetoes that vote. Levin called the language a significant step forward on the issue, one on which the White House and Congress have sparred for years.
Levin said the measure also includes non-binding language urging lawmakers to deal with looming sequestration cuts, which numerous lawmakers have lamented in recent years. Despite those protests, little progress has been made on repealing the spending caps since the Budget Control Act was approved three years ago.
The committee also included in its bill sexual assault reforms already approved by the full Senate earlier this year. Under that package of changes, sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., military commanders no longer would be able to overturn jury convictions; the statute of limitations for military rapes would be erased; and victims would receive their own independent counsel in sex crimes cases.
But the committee did not pursue a full overhaul of sexual assault prosecutions backed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., which would have separated sexual assault prosecutions from the military justice system in an effort to ensure complete independence.
Levin said senators were able to scuttle Pentagon plans to retire the A-10 fleet through savings found in personnel accounts, money made available by quicker-than-expected drawdowns in end strength.
Preservation of the U-2 fleet was made available by rerouting money assigned to the Global Hawk program. Levin acknowledged that the plan includes only partial funding for refueling an 11th aircraft carrier, but said he is confident the rest of that funding will be found before the measure is finalized later this year.
The decision to go along with the Army's Apache helicopter transfer plan comes with a caveat: Lawmakers want an independent commission to review the plan, and will limit the transfers to 48 aircraft until that work is complete.
But Levin said that move shouldn't delay the Army's transfer plans, given the time it will take to reassign the aircraft.
He also acknowledged military officials' complaints that the moves will create long-term costs for the department, but said lawmakers carefully balanced security needs and fiscal constraints in the decisions.
Levin noted that the authorization bill mark-up — done in private, despite protests by media groups — did not feature any party-line votes. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee's ranking Republican, praised the process, saying the committee did the best it could under difficult financial constraints.
No timetable has been set for when the committee bill might come before the full Senate.
Both the House and Senate drafts will need to be resolved in conference committee before the measure can be sent to the White House to become law.
Leaders from both chambers have said hope to finish the bill before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.