A new compromise defense bill appears poised to pass the House this week but could stall in the Senate again next week, threatening the Defense Department’s ability to pay its troops combat pay and putting at risk the Navy’s aircraft carrier program, which would have to stop work next year without a cost cap increase included in the defense bill.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) both used the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) as a key example of why Congress must pass the defense bill before lawmakers adjourn for the rest of the year. Buried in more than 1,600 pages of the new defense bill and its accompanying report – which reflects the bill the House passed in June, the bill the SASC passed in June but which stalled on the Senate floor last month, and amendments proposed but never taken up in the Senate – is an increase in the statutory cost cap for the ship that the Navy requested. The relief provision would allow the Navy to spend an additional $2 billion over the next two years to complete the ship, which the Navy and contractors have said they believe is sufficient to complete the ship and deliver it to the fleet.
Without that cost cap relief, which was set in 2007, the Navy would hit its spending limit for the ship over the summer, at which point all work would have to cease, according to a source familiar with the legislation.
More immediately, the aircraft carrier program could have to stop work and prime contractor Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] would begin exercising contract termination clauses as early as February if it does not receive an increase in its appropriations, which are still set at 2011 levels because the government has been funded by a series of continuing resolutions rather than full funding bills, the source said. Appropriators face a Jan. 15 deadline to find a new funding mechanism for the government – either another continuing resolution, a continuing resolution with some “anomalies” to allow select programs like the aircraft carrier to operate at levels higher than last year’s, or a full appropriations bill.
The source said the fear is that the appropriators – who could take the cost cap relief language and include it in their bill, for more certain passage – will be too rushed when they return in January to consider any additional language, which would leave the carrier program in limbo.
The easiest way to assure program success in 2014 would be for the defense bill to become law, since it already contains the language, but its odds are uncertain at this point. Several lawmakers believe it could pass the House this week but fail in the Senate for a second time.
“There’s definitely support on the House side, I think the problem is over on the Senate side,” HASC member Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said Wednesday morning.
“The Senate, as you know, has the ability to drag things out, and this is too important to do that to,” McKeon warned Wednesday morning, though he noted some discontent among senators. “I think the thing they need to understand is, we addressed 87 amendments that came from the Senate” in the compromise bill. “A lot of the senators were upset because they did not get to have them debated on the floor. I don’t want to get into their process, but they do need to know that we addressed 87 of them, and 79 are in the bill.”
That plea has not swayed the opinion of senators like Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who led the charge against the defense bill before Thanksgiving because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would not allow full debate on amendments.
“He’ll use all procedural tools at his disposal to force a full and open debate in the Senate,” Coburn spokesman John Hart said Wednesday afternoon.
Doing so would almost certainly mean the bill wouldn’t pass by the end of next week, and it is uncertain when the Senate would get around to fully debating the bill, with the appropriations deadline in January and a debt ceiling increase to be debated in February.