House passes defense bill with benefit cuts, money for Obama war strategy
WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday passed a defense budget that cuts troop benefits and clears the way for the Obama administration to continue its war strategy against the Islamic State, despite bipartisan outcry over a lack of debate.
The last-minute budget compromise reduces military pay raises, housing allowances, prescription medicine coverage, and commissary funding next year, while providing $63.7 billion for overseas wars and permission for continued arming and training of Syrian rebel groups.
The Senate is expected to vote next week on the massive 2015 budget bill, which was cobbled together during weeks of closed-door negotiations after the Senate failed to pass its version of a defense budget.
The military “is going to have to live with a dramatically smaller amount of money than they thought they would have,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.
He said the cuts do not go far enough and more are likely in the coming years.
The military is faced with a shrinking budget as sequestration forces caps on spending. Top brass came to Capitol Hill earlier this year lobbying for a wide range of cuts to personnel and equipment, warning that their ability to fight wars depends on reining in the ballooning expenses.
“We rejected pretty much all of them,” Smith said. “In 2016 and 2017, we are going to have to make some choices.”
Those that were approved in the budget bill faced little opposition Thursday.
“I remain concerned that these provisions send the wrong signal to our warriors and those who have sacrificed so much to protect our country,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., one of the few lawmakers who did mention the benefits on the House floor Thursday.
The bill, which passed 300-119, approves a 1 percent White House cap on troop pay raises, down from 1.8 percent increases. It opts for a variety of other cuts next year while leaving the door open for multi-year reductions requested by the Pentagon, such as:
◾ Basic housing allowances will go from covering 100 percent to 99 percent of costs, while the military hopes to eventually bring that down to 95 percent.
◾ Tricare pharmacy copays will cost troops $3 more, which could still be on track to meet the Pentagon goal of requiring $30 more out of pocket for prescription medicine within a decade.
◾ The $1.3 billion budget for base commissaries around the world will be reduced by $100 million. Brass wants a total of $900 million in reductions.
To get the bill approved Thursday, the House barred any amendments and limited debate.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were rankled by the quick action and especially the lack of debate over the new war in Iraq and Syria, which the Obama administration has waged since August under a congressional authorization from 2002. The White House and lawmakers have called for a new, updated war authorization in recent weeks, though there has been little movement on legislation.
“We are talking about a defense bill but we are not allowed to have a debate or vote on any of these wars we are involved in,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said.
Along with increased overseas war funding for Iraq operations, it allows the administration to continue with a strategy of training and arming moderate rebel groups fighting the Syrian civil war in hopes they can be a proxy ground force against the Islamic State.
Congress was skeptical of the plan this fall, saying it did not have enough information from the White House, but passed a temporary measure to allow it to continue until Dec. 11 before leaving for midterm elections.
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said lawmakers were voting again to approve the training and arming of rebels for up to two years without a clear understanding of the program.
He blamed the Democratic-controlled Senate for not passing a defense budget and putting pressure on both chambers to hastily pass a bill in the last days of the legislative session.
“The problem is we are debating this without any real discussion,” Sessions said, “because our friends on the other side of this building are not willing to engage us on the issue.”