Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., comments about the vote on the defense spending bill and his failed amendment that would have cut funding to the National Security Agency's program that collects the phone records of U.S. citizens and residents on July 24. The House approved the defense spending bill 315-109. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday evening overwhelmingly approved a spending bill that would give the Pentagon about $600 billion next year, while narrowly killing a measure that targeted controversial NSA surveillance programs.
The chamber’s 2014 defense appropriations bill, approved on a 315-109 vote, includes about $512.5 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget and around $82 billion for overseas operations. The base budget figure is about $3 billion less than the White House requested.
Some of the most dramatic moments of the two days of floor debates came late Wednesday afternoon when the House addressed amendments to limit the National Security Agency’s controversial spying program, place restrictions on US aid to Egypt, and put strings on dollars eligible for use to pay for a Syria military intervention.
Members sparred for nearly a half-hour over the most-anticipated amendment of the process, offered by tea party GOP Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan and liberal Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, as well as other members.
Republicans bashed Republicans, further exposing a divide that began in 2010 between the parties’ tea party privacy hawks and the old-school national security hawks. But Democrats joined the privacy side arguing for the Amash amendment; and in a twist, conservative Rep. Michele Bachman, R-Minn., defended President Obama’s use of the NSA programs.
The chamber narrowly rejected the Amash measure after days of lobbying against the amendment by senior NSA leaders and White House officials by a vote of 217 against to 205 in favor. Eighty-three Democrats joined 134 Republicans in killing the amendment.
It proposed to end what it calls the “authority for the blanket collection of records under the Patriot Act,” as well as proposing to bar the NSA and other agencies from “using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect records, including telephone call records, that pertain to persons who are not subject to an investigation under Section 215.”
The House approved, 409-12, an alternative NSA amendment crafted to ensure “none of the funds may be used by the NSA to target a US person or acquire and store the content of a US person’s communications, including phone calls and emails.”
Members approved, via voice vote, another Amash amendment focused on US aid dollars to Cairo. It mandates that no funds from the 2014 defense appropriations bill be used to pay for US military operations there or to support Egyptian “paramilitary operations,” and is co-sponsored by Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla.
House members also approved, via a voice vote, a measure that would restrict funds for a possible US military mission in Syria when they vote on an amendment offered by Rep. Trey Radel, R-Ohio. That measure would prohibit “the use of any funds with respect to military action in Syria to the extent such action would be inconsistent with the War Powers Resolution.”
Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., who sponsored the amendment, described it as “a reminder” to Obama that if he opts to order military action in Syria, he must abide by laws that give Congress a say before he does so.
Notably, Republicans and Democrats rose to support the amendment, many cautioning that a US mission in Syria could make things worse. Rep. Tim Rooney, R-Fla., said he wanted a stronger amendment that banned any US help to Syria’s rebels.
Radel and Rooney suggested Washington would be committing a blunder if it aided the rebels.
GOP House members clashed with President Obama in 2010 over the Libya operation, claiming Obama ignored the decades-old law when he plunged American forces into that nation’s civil conflict.
In a surprising move, more than 40 Republicans joined Democrats Wednesday to cut the House Appropriations Committees’ Overseas Contingency Operations funding level by $3.5 billion. The panel’s war-funding amount topped $85 billion. The bipartisan amendment passed 215-206.
The Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee has yet to even mark up its version of the legislation. Any eventual differences between the two bills would have to be ironed out by a conference committee before the final version could go to Obama.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., on the House floor, hailed the legislation.
“This total reflects an appropriate, thorough analysis of what is needed to keep this country safe,” Rogers said. “Freedom isn’t free; our liberties, our rights, and our property are preserved by our national defense — but at a cost.
But committee Ranking Member Nina Lowey, D-N.Y., said the bill prioritizes guns at the expense of butter.
“If considered on its own merits, the 2014 defense appropriations act is a good bill,” Lowey said in her own floor statement. “But there is much more to consider.
“As the House considers robust funding for defense, veterans, and homeland security, we are slashing critical services and investments like medical research, nutrition, clean and renewable energy, job training, and affordable housing,” she said. “The cuts proposed by the majority will eliminate jobs, increase poverty and hunger, and make it more difficult for working families to make ends meet.”
Rogers countered that point by claiming a strong military is part of a healthy nation.
“Sufficient funding for the Pentagon and our military is of the utmost importance to the continued prosperity of the United States of America,” he said. “It is, and should be, our top priority.”
The House bill is overwhelmingly good news for U.S. defense contractors. That’s because, 0n weapon programs, the bill mostly reflects the Obama administration’s requests. And that means most big-ticket programs on which firms are so dependent avoided major funding changes.
The House did approve appropriators’ plan to reduce the administration’s request for the F-35 fighter program by over $100 million, which it attributes to a pricing adjustment and an upgrade being “ahead of need.”
The bill also reduces the administration’s request for the F-18 fighter program by around $104 million, pointing to a list of reasons. But it adds $75 million to buy 22 new F/A-18E/F aircraft.
House appropriators want to slash the Pentagon’s $3.2 billion request for the P-8A Poseidon multi-mission aircraft program by $68 million, citing airframe cost growth and “support equipment growth.”
The legislation adds $146 million for Black Hawk helicopters. It also adds $200 million so the Pentagon can buy 40 more surface-to-air missiles.
The bill would add $950 million to the Navy’s request for the Virginia-class submarine project, while matching the Navy’s request for the Littoral Combat Ship program. It does, however, trim the service’s request for the LCS mission module program.
House appropriators made small funding cuts for things like missiles and torpedoes, but mostly adopted the Pentagon’s requests.
The same is true of Army combat vehicles. The bill approves all but $51 million of the administration’s desired $1.6 billion sought for wheeled and tracked combat vehicle programs.
In a rare show of bipartisanship, big numbers of Republican and Democratic members on Tuesday night voted for a number of amendments that would strip hundreds of millions of dollars from the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund.
Several of the amendments propose to use those dollars to pay down the federal deficit — though many budget analysts question whether yet-to-be spent funds can be counted against the deficit.
The House overwhelmingly approved one amendment to the bill, sponsored by a bipartisan group, that would take $553.8 billion from an account meant to help build Afghanistan’s security forces — the exact amount of a contract the Pentagon has negotiated with a Russian firm to supply Afghanistan with military helicopters.
Defense Department officials say the Afghans know how to operate, repair and maintain only Russian choppers, so it makes sense to purchase such models. But lawmakers see an increasingly hostile Moscow, and the sponsors’ goal is to block the Pentagon from being able to pay the Russian firm, Rosoboronexport.
The message from Republicans and Democrats on the Afghanistan funds is clear: It is more important to focus on repairing America’s economic situation than roads in Afghanistan.
House Republicans on Tuesday afternoon beat back a Democratic attempt to strip from the legislation $70 million to start work on a GOP-proposed East Coast missile shield that Democrats say isn’t needed.
Republicans also defeated other Democratic amendments that would have removed moved meant for other missile defense projects.
On foreign policy, the legislation places new strings on US aid to Pakistan, with which Washington has a complicated relationship but needs for counterterrorism efforts.
Ninety-five Democrats joined 220 Republicans voting in favor of the entire bill. Eight GOP members voted no, along with 101 Democrats. Five Republicans and four Democrats did not vote. The seat formerly occupied by now-Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., remains vacant.