Congress resumes work on approving next big chunk of Pentagon spending

Congress resumes work on approving next big chunk of Pentagon spending

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The F-35A stealth fighter is being debated now in Congressional defense bill negotiations. (Lockheed Martin photo)

WASHINGTON — House and Senate members are to begin negotiations today on the massive 2019 defense bill, with the two sides sorting out differences ranging from the shape of a possible space force, how to cut waste from the Pentagon budget and how many new ships, airplanes and subs to seek.

The $716 billion measure is seen as the second installment of a cash flow the Pentagon has sought to offset declines in training, equipment and basic readiness — as well as set the table for some new military hardware. It follows the roughly $700 billion defense spending bill for 2018, the current fiscal year, that President Trump signed earlier this year.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters that negotiators hope to have the differences settled by the end of July, before Congress leaves town for its summer recess.

The acting chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), told reporters there are “not as much as usual” areas of disagreement between the House and the Senate.

In the lead-up to the start of negotiations, the Senate approved two motions to instruct negotiators — known as conferees — to include non-binding directions that state Congress should reaffirm the U.S. commitment to NATO and to keep in the bill reforms to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).

One key area of slight divergence is a congressional pushback to President Donald Trump on granting sanctions relief to Chinese phone maker ZTE. The Senate added an amendment to its defense bill that would reimpose penalties on ZTE for violating Iran and North Korea sanctions, thus blocking Trump’s effort to rescue the company. The House bill prohibits any U.S. agency from using ZTE products.

In regard to creating a new branch of the military for space, the House bill creates a new sub-unified Air Force command and numbered Air Force designation for a space corps. There is nothing in the Senate bill for a space force. Neither bill creates a new branch.

Thornberry is pushing for a 25 percent slice in the Pentagon budget of department-wide non-readiness areas of human resources and services contracting by 2021. The Senate bill does not include any such reduction.

The two bills also differ on the number of new hardware purchases, such as for F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, submarines and littoral combat ships. Congress also is insisting on opposing the Pentagon’s plan to cancel the replacement of E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft, known as JSTARS.

The defense authorization bill now before House and Senate negotiators sets the framework for defense spending. The actual money comes from the defense appropriations bill, which is still in the approval process.

The House passed its version in June. The timetable for Senate action is open. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the bill would be among those coming to the Senate floor in the next two weeks.

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