House Armed Services Committee members advanced a $610 billion defense policy bill early Thursday that supporters say will fully fund the military's needs and critics blasted as another budgeting gimmick that creates more problems than it solves.
The annual defense authorization bill draft passed the panel by a 60-2 vote after a 16-plus-hour marathon markup session involving dozens of defense priority and regulation amendments. It includes a 2.1 percent pay raise for troops next year, 27,000 more troops than the White House requested and a massive overhaul of the defense medical care system.
It also includes $18 billion more in funding for things like additional F-18s, F-35s, littoral combat ships and Army Tactical Missile Systems. It dramatically boosts ship and aircraft depot maintenance and adds 900 Javelin missiles to the Pentagon's formal request.
Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Calif., said the additions are needed to supply the armed forces with the resources they need to keep the nation secure.
"The bottom line for me this year is that it is fundamentally wrong to send service members out on missions for which they are not fully prepared or fully supported," he said.
"For that reason, it is essential that we begin to correct the funding shortfalls that have led to a lack of readiness and to a heightened level of risk that we have heard about … and seen for ourselves."
But Democrats and administration officials have already offered strong objections to how the authorization bill — and the larger House Republican budget plan — pays for those additions.
While the measure's total cost is in line with spending deals agreed upon by Congress and the White House last fall, it shifts $18 billion from temporary war funds to the base budget. The result leaves only enough money for overseas operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to about halfway through fiscal 2017.
Thornberry said he hopes the next president will fill the shortfall with a supplemental budget request early next year. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter called that "gambling" with troops' missions and lives.
"It buys force structure without the money to sustain it and keep it ready, effectively creating a hollow force structure, and working against our efforts to restore readiness," he said in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
House Armed Services Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., echoed those concerns but ultimately backed the bill, calling it an important step forward in the process.
The authorization bill has been approved by Congress for 54 consecutive years, despite several presidential vetoes and even more veto threats. President Obama has threatened to veto every one of the House-passed defense authorization measures during his presidency, but followed through last year for the first time, over a similar funding fight.
The 2.1 percent pay raise recommendation matches the expected jump in private sector wages for 2017, and surpasses the White House's call for a 1.6 percent pay hike. Lawmakers included language preventing the president from overriding that plan later this year.
Senate lawmakers have not signed on to the higher raise yet. If it stays at 1.6 percent, the 2017 pay raise would still be the highest for troops since 2013, but would continue a six-year streak of military pay hikes below 2 percent.
Defense Department officials have said the lower-than-expected raise will save more than $300 million in fiscal 2017, and more than $2.2 billion over the next five years.
They have also emphasized that even at a lower level, troops will see bigger salaries starting next January. A 1.6 percent pay increase amounts to a $400 yearly pay boost for most junior enlisted troops and up to $1,500 more in annual pay for midcareer officers.
But for an E-4 with three years of service, the gap between the two pay raise plans totals about $136 a year. For an E-7 with 10 years, it's almost $228.
Among officers, the lower pay raise plan would drop the annual earnings of an O-2 with two years of service by roughly $234 in 2017. An O-4 with 12 years would lose about $425.
The authorization bill funds at 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through fiscal 2017, despite long-discussed White House plans to dramatically draw down the force by the end of the year.
It also would add 25,000 more soldiers to the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve than service leadership has requested. Thornberry billed the move as keeping the force at a steady level, instead of drawing it down.
Under the plan, the Army's active-duty force would rise from 475,000 to 480,000 soldiers, instead of dropping to 460,000 under planned Pentagon cuts. The Marine Corps would grow by 1,000 troops under the House plan, instead of shrinking from 184,000 to 182,000 under White House proposals.
Air Force personnel would grow by 285 instead of shrinking by almost 4,000, to 317,000. The Navy would still drop from 329,200 sailors by this fall to 322,900 by fall 2017.
Health care reform
The health care overhaul would include reorganizing multiple Tricare programs into two options: the existing Tricare Prime program and Tricare Preferred, a new network care option similar to Tricare Standard and Extra.
The current fee structure would remain in place but could change in 2020 if the Defense Department meets certain standards for patient access and care.
Under the plan, all personnel now serving or who will retire before 2018 will stay in current Tricare fee structures, with enrollment fees adjusted to the cost of living. Anyone enlisting after Jan. 1, 2018, would pay an annual fee for services.
Lawmakers would also require military health facilities to operate past normal business hours to improve patient access and to maintain urgent care facilities that are open until 11 p.m., or have an alternative equivalent option. It would place military health facilities under the administration of the Defense Health Agency.
Committee members included in the policy bill another prohibition on conducting a base closure round, despite repeated requests by Pentagon officials to pursue the cost-saving measure.
But the legislation does include language allowing the department to better study how much excess capacity the services have stateside, the first step toward a new base closing round that Congress has allowed in more than a decade.
The legislation also continues restrictions on the president's attempts to close the detention facility at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It includes $150 million in authorization for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, to train and equip the Ukrainian military, and increases similar assistance funds for Iraqi security by $50 million over the White House request.
Lawmakers also voted to require women to register for the draft, in light of new Defense Department rules allowing women to serve in all military jobs.
The full House is expected to vote on the proposal in mid-May. Senate Armed Services Committee officials are expected to offer their own draft of the authorization bill — with a different funding plan — the week of May 9.
Officials from both chambers are hopeful a final compromise bill can be reached before the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, but the measure typically isn't passed by Congress until after Thanksgiving.
Reporter Patricia Kime contributed to this story.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.