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Defense lawmakers set aggressive schedule for NDAA

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WASHINGTON―When Congress returns to work Monday, authorizers will aim for quick passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, even though a host of differences in the separate House and Senate versions of the bill have yet to be resolved formally.

While lawmakers have been on a five-week summer recess, staff for each chamber’s armed services committees were working to resolve non-controversial issues on the massive annual defense policy measure, clearing the way for conferees to focus on more problematic policy differences when they return this week.

And even with complicated work ahead and only 13 working days in September, aides in both chambers confirmed that leaders hope to draft a compromise conference report by Sept. 19, finalize signatures to the bill by Sept. 23 and set floor votes in each chamber before the end of September.

If successful, Congress would keep alive the legislation’s 58-year streak of successful passage into law ahead of schedule. Last year the measure was finalized in August, but typically the final legislation isn’t finished until November or December.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., has pitched the bill to fellow House Democrats as a way to coalesce around a national security position and aimed for a bipartisan bill―only to have House Republicans to shun the bill en masse for the final 220-197 vote.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said before the summer recess that he believes many of the House bill’s divisive provisions will have to come out in conference so that the bill can pass in the GOP-controlled Senate. His bill passed with a bipartisan 86-8.

Here are the biggest fights to be resolved in the days ahead:

The White House’s recent shift of $3.6 billion in military construction funds to pay for President Donald Trump’s controversial southern border wall project could end up being the largest complicating factor in negotiations ahead.

The House bill already has language barring such funding transfers in the future, and does not include money to cover the projects which lost funding in the shift. Senate Republicans do have the money in their draft and do not include any transfer language restrictions.

Given the recent outrage from congressional Democrats over the administration’s decision, finding a common path ahead on the issue will prove difficult. Smith last week blasted the money move as “stealing from military construction projects and upending years of planning and coordination in hopes that Congress would clean up the mess.” Inhofe said he supported the decision.

Among a range of differences on nuclear issues, the House bill bars funding for the deployment of a low-yield variant of a submarine-launched warhead called the W76-2. It would cut the entire $19.6 million Defense Department request and $10 million Energy Department request for the program.

Republicans insist prohibiting these weapons puts the U.S. at a disadvantage against Russia, while Smith, skeptic of nuclear spending, is among critics who say the concept of a tactical nuclear weapon is too dangerous for the U.S. to indulge.

House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said Republicans have blown the issue out of proportion. “If you look at the W76-2, it’s such a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction [of an] overall nuclear force, it’s not even a rounding error. So to make this the be-all and end-all of our nuclear arsenal is misleading,” said said during the full committee markup in June.

The House bill bars unauthorized use of force against Iran, repeals the 2002 resolution authorizing the Iraq war, which has since been stretched to other conflicts, and bars support to the Saudi-led coalition’s military operations against the Houthis in Yemen.

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have fueled fears among congressional Democrats that the president will cross the line from tough rhetoric and into war, while Republicans argue the president needs latitude to pressure Iran into a broader Iran nuclear deal.

The Senate’s draft does not address those authorization issues, leaving Democrats and Republicans a substantial divide to bridge in the final legislation.

The military “widow’s tax”

The House authorization bill draft includes eliminating an offset problem with two separate military survivor payouts that can cost some families up to $15,000 a year. But the Senate thus far has resisted the same plan, noting the $5.7 billion price tag over the next decade.

Military advocates have made the issue their top focus in recent months, calling it an issue of fairness and honoring troops’ sacrifices. Inhofe has said publicly he is sympathetic to the idea but also has had little success getting fiscal conservatives to agree to the move.

Just getting the issue into final conference negotiations represents a victory of sorts for those outside military support groups, since the issue often gets bounced from the draft text before the negotiations begin. Now they hope they can turn that legislative momentum into a final fix.

House Democrats, many of whom have long objected to continuing operations at the controversial detention facility at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, added language to their draft bill removing restrictions on transferring prisoners from the facility to mainland U.S. prisons and requires a plan to deal with ongoing legal questions surrounding the inmates there.

Republicans in both chambers have argued that the base remains a critical tool in the fight against terrorism, and inserted those restrictions in recent years to block President Barack Obama from attempting to shut down the detention center.

Now, with Congress divided, the question becomes which side is more resolute in their stance on the future of the base, and whether the impasse could be enough to undermine the entire policy bill.

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