By Emelie Rutherford

The House’s lead defense appropriators are crafting language in the Pentagon’s appropriations bill expressing frustration with allowing a $800 million expenditure for a new Air Force tanker competition, and said these considerations contributed to the delay of Wednesday’s bill-writing session.

House Appropriations defense subcommittee (HAC-D) Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) said he does not know when his panel can resume work on the fiscal year 2009 defense appropriations bill as the legislative year winds down, with a five-week recess starting Aug. 1 followed by a three-week session before Congress adjourns Sept. 26.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said yesterday the defense bill will pass before that adjournment date, adding she wants "the bill up as soon as possible."

"I have no concern, I know that the defense appropriations bill will be passed," she said. "That is our responsibility and we will do that."

"We’re trying to work something out," Murtha said yesterday about when the HAC-D markup will be held. "We certainly can’t get to the [House] floor before the August recess, so it makes no difference whether it’s this week or the next week…I’m not ready yet."

Murtha said the HAC-D markup, which had been scheduled for Wednesday, was postponed early this week because he needed more time to do two things: examine a proposed change the Pentagon’s stop-loss policy, a matter he said yesterday has been settled, and write language chastising the Pentagon for incurring added costs because of faulty solicitations for programs like the aerial refueling tanker.

The Pentagon needs $800 million for the limited tanker re-competition announced July 9, Murtha said. The Government Accountability Office last month upheld Boeing‘s [BA] protest of the Air Force’s February tanker contract award to a Northrop Grumman [NOC]-European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS) team, spurring the Defense Department to plan a new request for proposals (RFP) to be released in the coming weeks.

Murtha complained about the Air Force having "fouled up" the first tanker RFP. He said he plans to allow the $800 million expenditure, but said talks are ongoing in his office over just what type of language could be affixed to the appropriations bill expressing displeasure with the recompetition’s cost.

"We want to make clear that we’re through having to pay for your mistakes," Murtha said about the message he wants to send to the Pentagon.

He said yesterday that while he talked to Pelosi Wednesday night about moving forward on the defense appropriations bill, the tanker-language matter is "as complicated as hell."

"When they come to us and they say we’re going to recompete, it’s $800 million, they’ve done this four times," he said. "This is money just wasted."

HAC-D Ranking Member Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) said yesterday crafting the tanker language with Murtha has been tricky.

"We’ve been discussing that and I don’t think we’ve come to a conclusion about what the language should be," Young said. "We want to be careful that it doesn’t look like we’re directing the contract."

Murtha is not questioning the $800 million appropriation.

"We’ve got to buy tankers, so obviously we’re going to come up with the money," he said.

He said he is frustrated attempted legislative fixes have not been able to stop defense program overruns.

"What I’ve been trying to do is straighten out the programs so we know what we’re buying," he said.

Murtha said he knows there is anxiety over getting the FY ’09 defense appropriations bill approved. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told him it would be a "disaster" if a bill isn’t passed before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1 and the Pentagon has to rely on a continuing resolution (CR) freezing funding at FY ’08 levels.

In addition, Murtha said with the tanker he’s being reminded "both sides want to build"–something he’s been told by Pelosi and House Appropriations Committee (HAC) Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.).

Murtha said as the HAC-D’s July 16 markup neared it became clear he would not be ready. He blamed the time his staff spent working on the $161.8 billion fiscal year 2008 and FY ’09 war supplemental spending bill President Bush signed into law June 30, after months of deliberations and changes in Congress.

"The staff kept working long hours on that [supplemental] when they should have been working on the big bill," Murtha said.

He downplayed how much the scuffle over the 12 annual appropriations bills between Obey and HAC Ranking Member Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) has played into the HAC-D markup delay.

Obey has slowed work on the appropriations bills because he is upset with Republicans for procedural attempts to force energy-policy changes into the spending measures. Aides said they don’t expect the appropriations process to speed up much after Lewis sent Obey a letter on Monday saying House Republican appropriators will not offer energy amendments to the seven appropriations bills the full HAC has not yet considered (Defense Daily, July 16).

Still, many Capitol Hill observers say the defense bill may be the one and only FY ’09 appropriations bill that actually passes Congress this year, as President Bush has threatened to veto any of the spending bills that exceed his request.

In addition to Pelosi’s comments yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday predicted his chamber will take up the defense appropriations bill before FY ’09 begins.

Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) Chairman Robert Byrd (D- W.Va.) has said his committee will mark up the defense measure July 24.

Asked if the July 24 SAC markup will spur the HAC-D to act before then, Murtha said the SAC can do as it wishes, but under the U.S. Constitution the House considers appropriations bill before the Senate does.

Some lawmakers and aides predict a lame-duck legislative session will be held after the November elections.