WASHINGON — The White House on Tuesday doubled down on a brewing fight with Congress over legislative efforts that would prevent the retirement of several ships and aircraft as well as the scrapping of a nuclear modernization program.
With the House set to vote on the National Defense Authorization Act later this week, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget released a statement that said it “strongly opposes” congressional efforts to block its retirement and divestment plans.
The White House argued that blocking its efforts “to divest or retire lower priority platforms” inflated the top line of the $840 billion defense authorization bill, which already stands at $37 billion more than President Joe Biden’s budget request.
“The President’s budget request for [fiscal 2023] was developed in a thoughtful and deliberate way to match resources to strategy and strategy to policy,” the Office of Management and Budget wrote. “Any funding increase should be oriented to ensure the right balance of forces essential to advancing modernization while sustaining readiness.”
Democrats and Republicans alike have also rejected the Navy’s plans to decommission 24 ships, 16 of them ahead of schedule. The White House statement hit back at that, noting it “opposes” statutory requirements on the minimum number of amphibious ships and that it “strongly opposes incrementally funding a third Arleigh Burke class destroyer in FY 2023.”
Similarly, the House bill would also block the Air Force’s request to cut 33 Block 20 F-22A Raptor fighters.
The White House also said it “strongly opposes” a provision that would provide $45 million in continued funding for the sea-launched cruise missile nuclear development program, or SLCM-N, which Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., introduced as an amendment when the House Armed Services Committee voted 57-1 to advance the bill last month.
“Further investment in developing SLCM-N would divert resources and focus from higher modernization priorities for the U.S. nuclear enterprise and infrastructure, which is already stretched to capacity after decades of deferred investments,” the Office of Management and Budget wrote.
However, the fate of SLCM-N remains unclear, given the House Appropriations Committee last month advanced a bill that would defund the program.
The White House also decried a provision that would prevent the Navy from retiring five littoral combat ships. The service requested to retire nine of the vessels, citing breakdowns among the fleet as well as a $59 million annual maintenance cost.
Centrist Democrats Reps. Elaine Lurie of Virginia and Jared Golden of Maine successfully included the provision to prevent the Navy from decommissioning the ships when the House Armed Services Committee voted 57-1 to advance the bill last month. That amendment also included the $37 billion increase to the Biden administration’s budget over the objections of Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash.
Smith has introduced an amendment for debate on the floor this week that would revise the bill and allow the Navy to retire all nine ships.
The House Rules Committee, which controls the parameters of floor debate, approved a total of 650 amendments to the bill for floor debate and votes this week.
Smith has also introduced a floor amendment that would create a revolving critical munitions acquisition fund for Ukraine of up to $500 million per fiscal year.
The House’s defense authorization bill already contains a broader provision that would create a critical munitions reserve requiring the Pentagon to implement a pilot program identifying sub-tier suppliers, including those responsible for the storage and handling of controlled, unclassified information related to munitions.
The White House welcomed the “preliminary steps” taken to create the reserve but noted they fail to “provide the complete authority to establish a revolving fund to maintain continuous orders of munitions that the administration considers critical.”
“This section as currently drafted would still require [the Defense Department] to use presidential drawdown authority of existing Department munitions stock to support partner operations,” the Office of Management and Budget said. “Furthermore, without the complete authority requested, the defense industrial base is likely to be challenged to meet surges in demand, creating long lead-times for the delivery of critical munitions or weapon systems early in crises.”
The $40 billion Ukraine aid package that Congress passed in May included $11 billion in funding for Biden to transfer major weapons systems to the country via presidential drawdown authority, and $8.7 billion to backfill stocks of items like Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that were already sent. It also included $500 million to replenish U.S. critical munitions stockpiles, as well as $600 million in Defense Production Act funding to help unclog munitions supply chains and expedite missile production.
The White House did praise the inclusion of $550 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative in the defense authorization bill but asked Congress for additional flexibility in spending that money.
The Office of Management and Budget also asked Congress to increase the cap for the Special Immigrant Visa program to allow the entry of more Afghans who assisted the U.S. military and are therefore in danger of retaliation from the Taliban, a request that was not included in the defense authorization bill.
The White House also opposed a provision from Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn. — which the House Armed Services Committee voted to add to the legislation last month — that would ban the sale of Chinese-made products in U.S. commissaries.
The Office of Management and Budget said the provision “would affect more than 70 percent of products sold in military exchanges, a similar percentage to private sector businesses, and place a heavy financial burden on service members.”
The White House also noted it does support several other provisions in the bill, including a reauthorization of the Small Business Administration’s Innovation Research and Technology Transfer programs. The Defense Department heavily relies on these small business innovation grants, but its reauthorization is uncertain amid Senate negotiations to address concerns from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.