WASHINGTON — House and Senate negotiators have agreed on a Pentagon policy measure that blocks A-10 retirements and greenlights plans to arm Syrian rebels, a measure that should hit the House floor this week.
Senior aides from the House and Senate Armed Services committees told reporters Tuesday a compromise 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would clear the military to spend $519 billion (including $19 billion for the Energy Department) in base funds and $63.7 billion for America's conflicts.
The Air Force had proposed retiring its A-10 attack plane fleet to save billions over the jets' remaining life. But lawmakers rejected the idea, saying, among other arguments, the planes are needed now in Iraq.
The final NDAA includes "a prohibition on flying hours," one senior aide said. "We preserved the option for some relief" due to Air Force concerns with language in the Senate bill, he added.
The compromise language, if approved before Congress leaves next week, would add $350 million so the Air Force could fund A-10 operations and maintenance efforts, the aides said.
"If they don't need all of it, we have report language that they reprogram it to higher priorities," a senior Senate aide said. "So some money could become available."
Like on other weapon programs, the compromise measure proposes only a one-year plan for the A-10 fleet.
On Navy cruisers, the measure would allow the sea service to "stand down two" ships in 2015. But it says nothing about what the service might be allowed to do in 2016 and beyond, the aides said.
The bill also would authorize the Navy to buy three littoral combat ships, while approving incremental funding for LPD-28, an amphibious transport ship.
The negotiators waded into testy waters over an Army plan to shrink its force and shift Apache helicopters from the National Guard to the active force.
The final NDAA includes a "prohibition on helicopter retirements in 2015" with a hybrid of House and Senate language designed to hold off on a final verdict of the service's plans until two panels have weighed in. One will be a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on the proposal, and the other an independent commission's report.
"We didn't want to lock them in," a senior House aide told reporters. "They can proceed with what they need to do. ... We don't want to take sides until that [data] comes in."
The aides said the bill, slated to be filed later Tuesday, added more than $300 million for additional E/A-18G Growler electronic aircraft, though they were unable to provide a number of planes.
The House aide said both chambers "have some members who hope we can deal with sequestration" when the GOP-run Congress is seated in January.
If congressional Republicans and President Obama can finally reach a sequester-addressing fiscal deal, the House aide said, "some of these [weapons program] reductions wouldn't be necessary."
The measure's war-funding section includes monies to send additional American forces to Iraq. It factors in a recent White House request for its counter-Islamic State conflict, including $3.4 billion to fund US operations against the violent Sunni group and another $1.6 billion to train and equip Iraqi forces.
The compromise measure shifts language authorizing Obama to arm and train Syrian rebels into the annual Pentagon policy bill.
The senior aides told reporters they made some minor changes to the Syrian train-and-equip section, mostly because additional months allowed them to better understand the White House's plans.
"I think the biggest thing was understanding more precisely what the mission entails and giving them the authority to conduct that mission," the House aide said. That includes in which countries the training will take place, the kinds of facilities needed, and other things.
That additional time meant "we were able to match [the bill] with what current law allows them to do," the House aide said.
His Senate counterpart added: "I don't think you'll see major changes there."
The bill is expected to be voted on by the full House under a closed rule — no amendments will be debated or voted on. The House aide expects smooth passage in the lower chamber.
It would then go to the Senate, where things are trickier.
SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters earlier Tuesday that he expects the upper chamber to take up the NDAA next week.
"I don't think we'll get it from the House in time" for a vote this week, Levin said.
Once it arrives on the Senate docket, its sponsors will "be asking people to pass the bill without amendments," the Senate aide said.
But if Republican members insist on amending the bill, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would have to file cloture on the bill. That would start a 30-hour clock and set up a vote to end debate, with a 60-vote threshold. If that hurdle is cleared, an up-or-down vote requiring 51 votes could then be scheduled.
"We think we have enough votes to pass it," the Senate aide said with a half-smile, half-grimace. "But life in the Senate is always difficult."
Details of the compromise bill trickled out Tuesday. But a committee summary obtained by Defense News shows House and Senate negotiators accepted the White House's proposal for 490,000 Army troops.
It also authorizes a Navy with 184,100 sailors and 184,100 Marines, while the Air Force would get 312,980. The latter is above the request, but supports the A-10 compromise plan.
The House-Senate negotiators committed to 11 aircraft carriers by authorizing full funding to refuel the USS George Washington (CVN-73), according to the summary document. They also agreed to language that prohibits the service from spending any monies to retire a carrier.
While the Air Force has no plans to retire MQ-1 armed drones or U-2 spy planes in 2015, the legislation includes language blocking any such moves.
It also would block plans to retire seven Air Force E-2 AWACS surveillance planes, and will show how the service is to pay to keep them flying, the summary document states.
The negotiators fully funded the Pentagon's F-35 fighter request, despite lingering program ailments. They authorized $1.6 billion for F-35 R&D, and $6.7 million to buy 34 Lightning IIs.
The bill would clear the Pentagon to buy eight more MQ-9 armed drones by increasing the administration's request by $98 million, while also including $103 million more for six additional UH-60M helicopters.
The compromise bill increased funding lines for other programs, including the Army's Stryker effort ($50 million more); M1 Abrams tanks ($120 million more); the Air Force's JSTARS program ($73 million more); and Army trucks ($100 million more), according to the summary.
The negotiators fully funded the administration's requests for special operations forces, even approving new authorities that would let the defense secretary implement a rapid-acquisition process "to meet urgent SOF operational needs," according to the summary.
It also authorizes a new "flexible $1.3 billion Counter Terrorism Partnership Fund" designed to support US allies' operations and efforts to make the country's allies more potent in counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa.
The biggest missile defense move came on the joint US-Israeli Iron Dome program, which gained international accolades during Israel's recent fight with Hamas.
The compromise legislation would provide $350 million, $175 million over the administration's request. It would require all 2015 monies be spent according to an US-Israel co-production pact, which requires 55 percent co-production inside the United States on parts and components.
Notably, the negotiators added an authorization for $656 million for depot maintenance, monies included in the war-funding section. The Army would be cleared to spend the most, $232.5 million, with the Navy getting $111 million for aircraft work and $150 million for ships. The Air Force would also be cleared to spend $150 million and the Marines authorized to spend $10 million on depot work.