Congress Works On Domestic Agenda On Capitol Hill

House appropriators passed their annual defense spending bill out of committee. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON: House appropriators passed a $762 billion Pentagon spending package for fiscal 2023 out of full committee today, paving the way for a future vote on the House floor and an expected wider battle over its topline.

The bill, which passed the House Appropriations Committee in a 32-26 vote, would set Defense Department spending $32 billion higher than FY22. Democrats touted the spending package as “in line” with President Joe Biden’s budget request, but Republicans lambasted the topline number as too low amid rising inflation eats into the Pentagon’s buying power.

“The funding in the bill is not enough,” said Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.

While the overall budget is largely on par with Biden’s request, the committee decreased the Pentagon’s overall procurement budget to $143.9 billion, about $960 million below Biden’s budget request, but met the department’s request for 61 F-35s, 44 Abrams tank upgrades and $27 billion to buy eight new Navy ships. Appropriators increased the RDT&E budget by $1.6 billion above the request to $131.7 billion, $12.5 billion more than the FY22 enacted.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., chair of the defense subcommittee, noted that the committee’s Ukraine assistance initiative received $300 million under the legislation, fulfilling the president budget request.

“The situation in Ukraine and the reaction of democracies around the world should be instructive as we determine an appropriate level of defense spending,” McCollum said.

McCollum said that the committee made 624 reductions to the Pentagon’s budget request, each ranging from $90 million to $23,000. The $90 million slice came from money requested for the Air Force’s program to develop the hypersonic Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, known as ARRW. The ARRW program recently had its first successful flight test after three consecutive booster test failures last year.

During debate, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif. and ranking member of the defense subcommittee, attempted to restore the funding for the ARRW in an amendment, but was outvoted. McCollum cited the Air Force’s lack of commitment to the program’s future in its budget request as the reason for the reduction.

“We have given the ARRW program everything they need up until this point,” McCollum said. “However, if the Air Force … will not commit to this budget to fielding this weapon, I see no reason to fully fund $115 million that they have requested for development.” The funds included in the bill are intended to allow the service to complete its first round-up tests, “but no more,” she said.

Appropriators signaled that they would be keeping a close eye on the Navy’s plan for decommissioning Littoral Combat Ships. The appropriations bill requires the Navy to retain five and provide a report on potential missions in Southern and Africa Commands. McCollum noted she has had “unsatisfactory” conversations with the Navy about the ships and committed to stay on top of it.

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Appropriators suggested they will also closely follow the Air Force’s plans to replace its E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control (AWACS) fleet. Lawmakers pressed Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall last month to speed up the acquisition of the Boeing E-7 Wedgetail. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., today complained the Air Force hadn’t provided satisfactory details about cost, schedule, program and operational risk information. The budget language passed today requires the Air Force to submit a report on the E-3 replacement plans.

“Divesting the AWACS platform frankly cripples a critical capability that’s already in short supply,” Cole said.

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The E-3 language was part of a pre-agreed-upon manager’s amendment package that also included report language requesting a briefing from the secretary of defense on the feasibility of strengthening the relationship between the National Guard and Taiwan.

“As we’ve seen in Ukraine, it’s critical that we provide our vulnerable partners with the support they need before a crisis occurs,” Calvert said.

The markup also includes report language that would move military area of responsibility over Mexico from US Northern Command to Southern Command. Calvert said that a move would improve the US’s ability to fight drug trafficking in the region.

“Given the scope and sophistication of transnational criminal networks throughout the region, including their Chinese enablers, I think it makes a great deal of sense to assess whether our counter-drug efforts wouldn’t be stronger by moving Mexico to the responsibility of US Southern Command,” Calvert said.

The passage came as the appropriators’ House colleagues in the armed services committee marked up the National Defense Authorization Act. While HASC has yet to approve the final version of the defense policy bill, the committee approved an amendment that authorizes an increase of $37 billion to the Pentagon’s request.

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