The House Armed Services Committee passed a nearly $612 billion defense policy bill early Thursday that seeks to change military retirement benefits and challenges President Barack Obama’s policies on Guantánamo Bay, Ukraine and Iraq.
The vote was 60 to 2. The measure will be taken up by the full House next month.
Aside from taking breaks to handle other House business and attend the Japanese prime minister’s address to a joint meeting of Congress, the committee worked amendment-by-amendment for more than 18 hours. The panel of sleepy-eyed lawmakers adjourned their marathon session at 4:39 a.m.
On Guantánamo, the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, tried but failed to amend the authorization to remove restrictions on transferring detainees out of the military prison for terror suspects in Cuba.
The measure that passed reauthorizes a ban on transferring detainees to the United States or building detention facilities in the United States to hold them.
In an affront to the White House, it also rescinds the president’s authority to unilaterally transfer detainees like he did when he exchanged five Taliban detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. And it reverts to a strong transfer policy established under the 2013 defense act, which says transfers may take place only when the defense secretary can certify that a third country will maintain control over a released detainee and prevent him from returning to the fight or threatening the U.S.
The president has already voice his opposition to the stronger provisions. Even before the committee voted, the White House spokesman complained that instead of removing what it called burdensome restrictions, the House bill would extend them and impose other restrictions.
On Ukraine, the committee approved provisions to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine forces fighting Russian-backed separatists. It authorizes $200 million to do more to provide Ukraine with military training and assistance to defend itself from Russian aggression. Despite bipartisan demands in Congress to arm Ukraine’s forces to defend itself, Obama has so far refrained from doing so.
In another move opposed by Obama as well as by an influential Shiite cleric, the committee approved giving 25 percent of $715 million to train and equip the Iraqi army directly to Sunni and Kurdish fighters.
“In the event of approving this bill by the U.S. Congress, we will find ourselves obliged to unfreeze the military wing and start targeting the American interests in Iraq — even abroad, which is doable,” said the statement on Muqtada al-Sadr’s website.
The Iraqi government has also rejected the provision.
“Any weapons supplying will be done only through the Iraqi government,” it said. “The draft law proposed by the foreign affairs committee in the U.S. Congress is rejected and it will lead to more division in the region and we urge it be stopped.”
Closer to home, the committee agreed to move forward with military retirement reforms suggested earlier this year by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. Some lawmakers had suggested waiting until more research could be done on the impact of the reforms, especially since they are not to take effect until 2017. Others pushed to move ahead, saying there always would be some reason to delay.
Recommended changes to the retirement benefits would mirror what has gone on in the federal government and private industry. Military members could continue to get their defined pension benefit, but they could also enroll in a thrift savings plan, like a 401(k), that would include some matching contributions from the government. The change would allow troops to receive a least some retirement pay even if they don’t stay on for 20 years, the minimum length of service required to receive a pension.
The bill authorizes $515 billion in spending for national defense and another $89.2 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations for a total of $604.2 billion. Another $7.7 billion is mandatory defense spending that doesn’t get authorized by Congress. That means the bill would provide the entire $611.9 billion desired by the president.
The committee is skirting automatic spending caps — or sequestration — imposed by Congress in 2011 by increasing the emergency war-fighting fund, which is not affected by the caps. President Barack Obama says the committee is using a budget “gimmick” to increase defense spending while failing to reverse sequestration.
▪ STRIKE FIGHTERS: Despite a challenge from Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., the panel rejected a plan to take money from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and give it to the National Guard and Reserve. The bill authorizes six additional F-35Bs for the Marines and 12 more F-18s for the Navy.
▪ EAST COAST MISSILE DEFENSE: Even though the Pentagon doesn’t think it’s needed, the committee set aside $30 million for planning, designing and constructing what would be a multibillion-dollar missile battery on the East Coast. There already are ones in California and Alaska to counter the threat of missiles that might be launched at the U.S. from North Korea or Iran.
▪ A-10: The Air Force urged Congress not to stand in the way of retiring the A-10 attack jet, which provides close air support for troops, but the committee voted to keep it alive for another year.
The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act is the legislation that authorizes the budget authority of the Defense Department and the national security programs of the Energy Department.