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‘Big Four’ to Get Busy Settling Differences on Defense Bills in Lame-Duck Session

Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees will get to work this week negotiating the most contentious differences between their versions of the annual defense authorization bill, with a to-do list that includes resolving policy on the military’s detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and determining the fate of the Air Force’s venerable A-10 Warthog aircraft, Navy cruisers and Army National Guard attack aviation.

With the Senate bill unlikely to be brought to the floor for consideration in the abbreviated lame-duck session, the committees are stealing a page from last year’s playbook by holding an informal conference on the House-passed fiscal 2015 defense bill (HR 4435) and the Senate Armed Services Committee’s rival version (S 2410).

The committees’ goal is to push the legislation through Congress during the lame duck, keeping alive their track record of sending a military authorization bill to the president’s desk every year for more than half a century.

House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., are retiring at the end of the session, and neither wants to end his tenure with the bill unfinished.

“You’ve got to get the best deal you can get because the primary objective is getting a bill,” a congressional source tracking the legislation said this week.

Over the past several months, staff members from both committees have been working informally to draft a compromise version of the bill. But there are a handful of high-profile issues that only can be resolved by the “Big Four,” Levin and McKeon and their ranking members, Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington.

Still in Detention

Topping that list of issues, as it frequently does, is the policy affecting the detention facility at Guantánamo, which President Barack Obama has tried — and failed — to close since the beginning of his first term.

The bill the House passed in May would continue the long-standing ban on closing the facility. But Senate Armed Services included compromise language in its legislation that would raise the slight possibility of eventually closing the Guantánamo prison.

Specifically, the Senate bill would require the president to submit to Congress a plan for transferring detainees from Guantánamo to the United States while also giving Congress authority to vote to disapprove the plan. The president could ultimately veto the resolution of disapproval, requiring a two-thirds vote of Congress to override.

As they have done in the past, White House officials have said Obama would veto the bill if it includes language blocking the closure of the detention center.

“Operating the detention facility at Guantánamo weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners and emboldening violent extremists,” the White House said in a statement of administration policy on the House’s version of the defense bill.

But the White House has never followed through on its veto threats and McKeon and other committee Republicans have indicated they are unwilling to budge much on the issue.

In a letter last month to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, McKeon expressed his “grave concerns” that detainees transferred from Guantánamo may be joining the Islamic State and other extremist groups in their fight against the United States and allies in Iraq and Syria.

McKeon requested an immediate suspension of all transfers from Guantánamo for the duration of the fight against the Islamic State, which is expected to take years.

Keeping the A-10 Aloft

In addition to Guantánamo, congressional sources tracking the bill said the committees’ differing language on the A-10 remains an issue for the Big Four to resolve.

Both bills would reject the Air Force’s proposal to retire the Warthog, a close-air-support plane that has been in service since the late 1970s and is renowned for its durability and firepower. The Air Force estimates that retiring the A-10 would save $4.2 billion over the next five years. But the committees took very different approaches.

The Senate bill would authorize $320 million to keep the aircraft flying in fiscal 2015, offsetting the cost of maintaining the planes elsewhere in the base budget. Air Force officials worry that plan would hurt the force’s overall readiness.

The House version would keep the A-10s in service by tapping the overseas contingency operations account to authorize $635 million for the aircraft. But the committee approved that language over the objections of Smith and McKeon, who wanted to put the planes in storage.

Meanwhile, another contentious debate is shaping up around the Navy’s proposal to take 11 cruisers — half the fleet — out of service for modernization. The House bill would deny the Navy’s proposal, but Senate Armed Services agreed to the plan, which Navy officials have said would extend the lives of the modernized ships into the 2040s.

The updated cruisers would ultimately replace the ships that do not go through modernization. But the proposal has raised concerns on Capitol Hill, just months after lawmakers rejected for the second time a Navy proposal to decommission seven of the service’s cruisers years before they were expected to leave service.

The Navy has taken an aggressive stance on the issue, circulating a paper this spring that slammed the House Armed Services’ position, arguing that it would cost the service billions of dollars and ultimately damage the fleet’s readiness and modernization plans.

Over the next several weeks, the Big Four will also have to negotiate differences in their approaches to the Army’s contentious proposal to move the Army Guard’s 192 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to the active component.

The House’s version of the defense bill would prevent the Army from moving any Apache helicopters from the National Guard, while the Senate’s bill would limit the number of Apaches the Army could transfer to active-duty squadrons to 48 choppers until an independent commission that would be created reports back to Congress in early 2016.

The Army’s proposal has drawn a backlash from governors and National Guard officials across the country who have argued that it would take the combat aviation mission away from the Army Guard.

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