WASHINGTON – The A-10 Warthog, military bases scattered around the country and the generous housing allowance for service members survived the budget knife early Thursday morning as a House panel rebuffed Pentagon pleas and approved a $601 billion defense bill that spares ships, planes and benefits.
On a unanimous vote, the Armed Services Committee backed the legislation that authorizes overall spending for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The blueprint spared excess military bases, the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane, Navy cruisers and an 11th aircraft carrier as parochial interests prevailed in an election year.
The full House is expected to consider the legislation the week of May 19. The bill would have to be reconciled with a still-to-be-written Senate version.
In an all-day, all-night session, the committee voted overwhelmingly to provide $635 million for the Air Force's A-10 close-air support aircraft, rejecting the service's plan to retire the plane. The A-10 has a strong coalition of backers in Congress, and Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., secured bipartisan votes for his measure.
The bill also prevents the Pentagon from moving ahead with another round of base closures to shutter excess facilities and rejects any Pentagon effort to force service members to pay slightly more in out-of-pocket costs for off-base housing.
The panel's actions came a day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appealed for fiscal restraint.
"Sustaining our edge in the face of new strategic and fiscal challenges will require Congress' partnership in making tough choices, always looking at our broader national interests instead of narrow constituencies," Hagel said.
The overall spending level matches a deficit-driven, bipartisan budget agreement and reflects a new phase for the Pentagon after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. That forced lawmakers to make tradeoffs, pinching the budget for operations and maintenance by $1.4 billion to cover the cost of favored ships and planes.
The hours of debate Wednesday also produced fierce policy discussions on topics ranging from sexual assault in the ranks to whether sailors and Marines should be allowed to smoke.
In a win for the Pentagon, the committee endorsed leaving the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders.
In an emotionally charged debate, the panel narrowly rejected a measure that would have stripped commanders of the longstanding authority to decide whether to pursue a case, especially if it was related to sexual assault, and hand the job to seasoned military lawyers. The vote was 34-28.
Pentagon leaders vigorously oppose the change in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, arguing that commanders should have more responsibility, not less, for the conduct of the men and women they lead in war and peacetime. Female lawmakers in the Senate and House have questioned whether the military's mostly male leadership understands differences between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive justice.
"We have not fixed this," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., sponsor of the measure.
Offering their support for the measure were two House members who have experienced war — one who lost both legs and partial use of an arm in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq and one who served in the 29th Infantry Brigade's medical operations near Baghdad.
Both veterans are women.
"I love the military with every bone in my body," Rep. Tammy Duckworth said. "I am devastated to see how sexual predators are treated."
The Illinois Democrat said she "gradually, painfully" came to the conclusion that decisions on prosecution should be taken out of the military chain of command.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said the voices of the victims need to be heard.
Opponents of the measure maintained that commanders must be held accountable and that the military leadership was working to address the problem.
Last week, the Pentagon said the number of sexual assaults reported by members of the military jumped by an unprecedented 50 percent last year, in what Hagel declared was a "clear threat" to both male and female service members' lives and well-being.
Overall, there were 5,061 reports of sexual abuse filed in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared with 3,374 in 2012. About 10 percent of the 2013 reports involved incidents that occurred before the victims joined the military, up from just 4 percent in 2012.
The Navy review of whether to restrict access to tobacco drew a pre-emptive strike from Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who described smoking as one of the few pleasures for a battle-hardened service member.
Proponents of possible restrictions spoke of tobacco addictions and health care costs, but Hunter easily convinced his colleagues, as his amendment won 53-9.
The bill also would prohibit the Army's new hair and grooming requirements for female soldiers, including limits on the size of twists and cornrows. Some members of the service have said they unfairly target black women.