WASHINGTON – The GOP chairman of the House Armed Service Committee on Monday recommended a $604 billion defense budget for 2016 that challenges the White House because it includes lethal weapons for Ukraine, makes it harder for the president to empty the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and restores funding for the A-10 fleet.
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Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, released his so-called chairman's mark for the National Defense Authorization Act. On Wednesday, his committee will debate the proposal, which he claims also works to add more flexibility and accountability into the defense acquisition process.
"These reforms are designed to recruit and retain America's best and brightest, ensure that our forces maintain their technological edge, and to balance resources from the tail to the tooth of the force," Thornberry said.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the defense bill historically has been a place where Congress can put its imprint on national security policy, yet it also provides an opportunity for politicians to engage in parochial politics.
"For example, the majority is attempting to further its perilous policy of allowing the excessively expensive detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to persist. This is a political position driving bad policy," Smith said.
Smith said the budget proposal includes a ban on U.S. military base closures, forcing the Pentagon to maintain facilities it does not need or want. Smith also lamented a provision that he said "micromanages the Navy's ability to manage its modernization as it relates to a number of cruisers."
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On the other hand, Smith applauded the support for U.S. efforts in Iraq and Syria and a bipartisan effort to address defense acquisition reform. "To be clear, there are positive provisions in this bill, but we have got to make some changes if we are going to get a bill that the president will sign."
The proposal 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 chairman's proposal would provide the entire $611.9 billion desired by the president, whose request disregarded spending limits that Congress imposed in 2011. The committee is skirting the spending cap for defense by increasing the OCO, the emergency war-fighting fund.
Some highlights of the chairman's proposal:
— UKRAINE: Recommends providing lethal weapons to the military and national security forces of Ukraine that are fighting Russian-backed separatists. Authorizes $200 million to do more to provide Ukraine with military training and assistance to defend itself from Russian aggression.
— GUANTANAMO BAY: Reauthorizes a ban on transferring detainees to the United States and building detention facilities in the United States to hold them. Rescinds the president's authority to unilaterally transfer detainees like he did when he exchanged five Taliban detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. 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.
— IRAQ: Supports authorizing the president's request of $715 million for security assistance to Iraqi forces battling Islamic State militants, but requires 25 percent of the funds be given directly to Kurdish and Sunni forces involved in the fight.
— SYRIA: Authorizes $600 million to keep training and equipping vetted moderate Syrian opposition forces, but expresses concern about helping defend those forces once they return to the fight in Syria.
— AFGHANISTAN: Recommends that the U.S. withdraw American forces from Afghanistan only at a pace in which Afghan security forces can secure the country. Recommends that the U.S. financially back the Afghan security forces through 2018.
— A-10: The Pentagon has been trying to retire the A-10 for years, but Thornberry's proposal restores funding seeks to upgrade the fleet, which provides close air support for troops.
— ACQUISITION: Works to cut bureaucracy by moving critical decisions to the beginning stages of the acquisition process; simplifies the chain of command and makes it possible for top military talent to serve in acquisition roles.
— REPORTS TO CONGRESS: To free up man hours, the proposal takes actions that over the next six years will eliminate more than 460 congressionally mandated reports.