By Connor O’Brien, Lee Hudson
Both the House and Senate Armed Services committees have finalized their authorization bills for fiscal 2023. While it wasn’t easy, now comes the even harder part: Coming up with a compromise.
But before that happens, both bills need to be approved in their respective chambers.
Once each chamber passes a version of the bill, the committees will enter conference and craft compromise defense policy legislation.
Here are the biggest hot-button issues that will be up for debate.
The $8 billion question: Both panels agreed to scrap President Joe Biden’s $802 billion national defense proposal and voted to increase the price tags of their bills substantially, though by different amounts.
House Armed Services on Wednesday adopted in a 42-17 vote a $37 billion increase to the topline, boosting the total to approximately $839 billion. The panel did so without the backing of Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who opposed the increase along with most committee Democrats.
The topline boost, offered by Democrats Jared Golden of Maine and Elaine Luria of Virginia, included billions to boost shipbuilding and aircraft procurement as well as blunt some of the impacts of inflation, such as on troops’ cost of living, fuel and military construction.
Senators, meanwhile, approved an even bigger increase by an even wider margin. Senate Armed Services adopted a $45 billion boost to Biden’s budget, with just one Democrat on the panel opposed.
Committee staff said the deal struck between Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and ranking Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe to boost the topline to $847 billion dedicates roughly half the increase to fighting inflation. The panel also set about authorizing more money for military projects that didn’t make it into Biden’s proposal, assisting Ukraine and replenishing weapons that were transferred there.
House and Senate leaders will need to close the $8 billion gap once they begin negotiations on a compromise bill in the coming months. But without a framework for federal spending, how much to authorize for the Pentagon — and what to spend the money on — could be tricky.
Armed Services’ negotiations on the topline could be preempted if leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees reach a government-wide spending deal. Appropriators have sought to iron out defense and non-defense spending to more quickly pass government funding legislation, but have been unable to get an agreement.
New tanker: The Senate is mum on the acquisition strategy for the Air Force KC-Y “bridge tanker.” In the House, New Jersey Democrat Rep. Donald Norcross pushed through an amendment, 36-22, that allows the service to sole-source the program as long as the Air Force briefs the committee on the decision.
Norcross’s proposal beat out an amendment from Alabama Republican Rep. Jerry Carl, who wanted to force the Air Force to hold a competition for the contract for a new tanker. But Norcross argued it is important to allow the Air Force to finalize its requirements before directing the service to open a competition for the program.
The Air Force plans to purchase 140-160 new tankers once the final Boeing KC-46 Pegasus aircraft is delivered. The service will only consider buying nondevelopmental aircraft, meaning there are only two options – continue buying the KC-46 or open a competition allowing the Lockheed Martin-Airbus A330 Multi-Tanker Transport vie for the contract.
Negotiations between the House and Senate will determine whether any language on KC-Y makes it into the final defense policy bill.
Shipbuilding: Lawmakers will need to decide how many ships the Navy is authorized to buy. The House version includes $2.4 billion for one extra Constellation-class frigate, another fleet oiler and two expeditionary medical ships.
The House bill also includes $1.2 billion to incrementally fund an extra Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. The funding comes from Golden’s amendment to increase the topline by $37 billion.
The Senate didn’t use any of its budget boost to procure more ships.
Both committees authorize two Virginia-class attack submarines, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, a Constellation-class frigate, a San Antonio-class amphibious warship, a fleet oiler and a towing and salvage boat. The eight ships were all requested in the Pentagon budget.
Super Hornets: The House wants to keep the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet production line open by authorizing $660 million for eight jets. The Navy did not request F/A-18s in the fiscal 2023 budget submission, and the Senate did not mention Super Hornets in its mark of the defense policy bill.
The service planned to end Super Hornet production after 2021 but more aircraft were included in the fiscal 2022 defense policy bill. Navy officials have criticized the pressure from outside groups to purchase more Super Hornets. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said last year, “Lobbying Congress to buy aircraft that we don’t need, that are excess to need, it’s not helpful.”
Ukraine assistance: Lawmakers must determine how much funding to authorize for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.
The House voted to authorize $1 billion, while the Senate bill authorizes $800 million for the Pentagon to arm the country. DoD requested $300 million for the program.
Women in the draft: Lawmakers will also need to address the thorny issue of whether to require women to register for the Selective Service, though it’s unclear if leaders in both chambers are on the same page about the issue.
Senate Armed Services approved a provision to require women to register for a potential military draft with a wide bipartisan majority. Just six of the panel’s Republican members opposed it.
In doing so, senators are revisiting a brawl last year that saw both chambers endorse requiring women to register, only for the major change to be unceremoniously dropped from a final compromise bill under pressure from conservatives.
But House lawmakers didn’t address the issue during their committee deliberations, and the measure is silent on whether the policy should change.
The full House could still adopt the change on the floor, which would apply even more pressure to add women to the draft registration process.
Nuke debate: The Senate wants to block the retirement of the B83 gravity bomb, which the Biden administration also wants to terminate.
The House is silent on the project, meaning the question to retire the 1970s-era gravity bomb will be up for discussion during conference.
A second program up for debate is the fate of a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, is a weapon the House and Senate both want the Pentagon to continue but differ on the approach.
The House amendment would authorize $45 million for the cruise missile that could be fired from submarines and warships and its warhead, but requires the Pentagon and the National Nuclear Security Administration to submit a slew of reports before spending the money. The Senate proposal also would authorize $45 million to continue research into the cruise missile.
Training Aussies: The House wants to create a “training pipeline” for Australian submarine officers to participate in the Navy's nuclear propulsion school, enroll in the Submarine Basic Course and deploy on a U.S. submarine.
The move is in line with America’s trilateral alliance with Australia and the U.K., or AUKUS, which includes helping Australia develop a nuclear submarine fleet. The amendment was proposed by Connecticut Democrat Rep. Joe Courtney and was passed by voice vote as part of a larger en bloc package.
The Senate did not include a provision for the U.S. to help train future Australian submariners and will be an issue the two chambers discuss during conference. If passed, this would be the first concrete step forward for the defense alliance in Congress.
Space Guard? The House is trying for a second time to create a Space National Guard, which would include troops from eight states and territories who are performing space missions.
The panel approved the proposal from Colorado Democrat Rep. Jason Crow by voice vote as part of a larger en bloc package.
Last year, HASC voted to establish a Space National Guard, but the effort was blocked. The White House argued the new organization would create additional government bureaucracy.
But a group of 12 senators, led by California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, introduced a bill on May 10 to create a Space National Guard. The measure was not included in the SASC bill but will be part of the conversation when writing the compromise defense policy bill.
Minimum wage: House lawmakers staked their ground on making a $15 hourly minimum wage permanent for federal contractors.
Biden last year issued an executive order establishing a $15 per hour rate as the minimum for employees performing work under federal contracts. House Armed Services adopted an amendment from Norcross to enshrine Biden’s executive order in law despite Republican opposition.
Unlike most of the bill’s provisions, Norcross’s minimum wage measure applies to contractors across the federal government, not just the Pentagon.
The Senate has not yet revealed a position on the effort.