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Armed Services Panels Diverge on Space, Troop Levels

Committees also split on funding for Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, left, and ranking Democrat Jack Reed, center, talk with Defense Secretary James Mattis at a hearing on June 13. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, left, and ranking Democrat Jack Reed, center, talk with Defense Secretary James Mattis at a hearing on June 13. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House and Senate Armed Services committees took significantly different approaches in their annual Pentagon policy bills on everything from space operations to Army manpower, lining up what could be a tough conference negotiation later this year.

Among the biggest differences in the bills is how each approached space defense programs. The House panel advanced legislation that would create a new military service focused on space and operated by the Air Force called Space Corps. The proposal, which has the backing of committee Republicans and Democrats alike, would amount to a historic restructuring of the military, if it becomes law.

The Senate panel, however, chose only to lengthen the required term of the commander of Air Force Space Command to six years. The goal according to a Senate committee aide, is to give the commander enough time to put more of a strategic focus on space.

“There’s nothing in the [Senate Armed Services Committee] report dealing with Space Corps,” the aide said. The committee will not release the full text of the bill until after the July Fourth recess.

While Space Corps advanced out of the House committee with bipartisan support, the program also faced bipartisan scrutiny Wednesday during the House’s marathon markup session, and is opposed by Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson.

The committees also disagreed over troop level increases, with the House bill adding 17,000 soldiers to the Army while Senate legislation would add just 6,000 additional troops.

“I think the belief was that adding 17,000 soldiers to the Army in one year … couldn’t be done while maintaining the standards,” the Senate aide said. “The belief was that 6,000 is a responsible rate for the Army to grow in one year.”

The aide went on, however, to suggest that the panel would be open to further increases to the size of the Army down the road, opening a possible area for compromise with the House.

The House panel has said the plus-up matches the increases in the Army’s budgetary wish list.

The two committees are also divided on funding for the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program, known for its frequent technical difficulties, cost hikes and schedule delays. Senate authorizers approved funding for just one of the shore-hugging vessels while the House approved funding for three ships. The LCS program has long been targeted for cuts by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.

The White House requested one of the shore-hugging vessels for next year, but later revised the request to say they wanted to buy a second LCS. On Thursday, the White House finally explained how they would pay the $500 million needed for that ship, by making cuts elsewhere in shipbuilding and other Navy accounts.

The committees did find common ground, however, by authorizing billions of dollars in defense spending above the legal limit allowed by the Budget Control Act, with the House and Senate panels boasting funding levels of $696 billion and $700 billion, respectively. (Both of those figures include $8 billion outside the committees’ jurisdiction and thus not included in the bill itself, according to a Senate Armed Services document.)

For either proposal to pass, legislators would need to eliminate spending caps, pour unprecedented amounts of funds into the war budget or raise spending levels.

Senate Armed Services aides are hoping for the latter, believing their bill will “help to influence” discussion between legislative leadership on raising the established caps.

But they have a steep climb ahead of them, with Democrats, who can block spending bills from moving forward in the Senate, insisting on similarly generous increases to nondefense accounts.

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