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How Conferees Resolved Differences on Defense Authorization Bill

photo of Sara Sorcher
December 18, 2012

Emerging from conference committee on Tuesday, leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services committees presented the final version of the defense bill authorizing about $633 billion for Pentagon programs.

Compromising on several contentious issues that differed within each chamber's respective versions of the bill was possible, as Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., put it, even “in days of partisanship and gridlock and fiscal cliffs." House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., expects the House on Thursday to take up the bill authorizing $527.5 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget and $88.5 billion for the overseas contingency operations account that funds the war in Afghanistan. It will continue to the Senate and then to President Obama for his signature. The White House had already threatened to veto the bill over some of the more controversial provisions, but that would be highly unlikely for the must-pass legislation.

Here are some compromises lawmakers made during conference committee:

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY. The House defense bill’s restrictions on the military’s ability to invest in green energy were overturned in the final version of the legislation. This was a win for the Obama administration, which had objected to language limiting the Pentagon's ability to help develop a capability to produce "cost-competitive advanced drop-in biofuels" at a commercial scale. But the Pentagon will face restrictions in its ability to fund biofuel refinery construction until it receives matching funds from the departments of Energy and Agriculture. As House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., points out, however, “This was the original plan put forward by the administration … [the Defense Department] can’t wind up footing the whole bill here.”

IRAN SANCTIONS. The economic sanctions on Iran crafted by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., were left for the most part intact, targeting Tehran’s energy, port, shipping, and shipbuilding sectors as part of the broader U.S. effort to derail Iran's nuclear program. However, Levin did say that the final bill gives the Obama administration more time before it has to implement the sanctions. The administration had reportedly informed several offices on Capitol Hill that it opposed the new round of sanctions it claimed could undermine ongoing efforts to tighten the financial noose around Iran.

MEADS. The legislation zeroed out money for the multinational Medium Extended Air Defense System the Pentagon has said it does not intend to procure, over the White House’s vocal objections. “If the Congress does not appropriate FY 2013 funding, there is a high likelihood that this action would be perceived by our partners, Italy and Germany, as breaking our commitment,” a memo from the White House had stated after both Senate and House bills stripped funding for the program. The White House also warned this move could harm Washington’s relationship with its allies.

MILITARY DETENTION. The conferees came up with new language to clarify last year’s controversial detainee provisions within the 2012 defense authorization bill requiring the transfer of some terrorism suspects to military custody. The final bill stipulates that nothing in the original 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force or last year’s defense authorization bill will deny habeas corpus or any constitutional rights “to any person inside the United States who would be entitled to the availability of such writ or to such rights in the absence of such laws.” That’s a fancy way of saying: The defense bill is not meant to infringe on anyone’s basic right to trial he or she already had. Of course, that depends on your interpretation of terrorism suspects' basic rights to trial — which lawmakers have argued without resolution for more than a year. All in all, the new language leaves us in about the same place as last year on this contentious detainee issue.

TRICARE FEE INITIATIVES. Both chambers refused to adopt the Obama administration’s request to raise fees for Tricare, the military’s health care system—and the conference committee largely rebuffed the White House’s cost-saving initiative as well. A fact sheet provided by the House Armed Services Committee said that the Obama administration’s proposals to increase some Tricare fees—which it claimed would save $1.8 billion next year, and $12.9 billion through fiscal 2017—“went too far and were not included in the bill.” The bill now does include a modest increase in pharmacy co-pays in 2013 and a cap on pharmacy co-pays beginning in 2014, but Levin said the increase in the co-pays was “significantly more modest than what the administration requested.”

EAST COAST MISSILE DEFENSE SHIELD. The House did not receive its request for $100 million for an East Coast missile-defense shield. But the legislation now does require the Defense Department to conduct an environmental impact study on three sites for a possible additional ground-based interceptor site in the United States. Two of these sites must be on the East Coast, which could be a first step for the original House plan championed by McKeon and Mike Turner, R-Ohio. But Levin insisted, “There is no operational deployment plan.”

ABORTION. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., hailed the conference committee’s repeal of a 1981 policy denying women in the military coverage for abortion in cases of rape and incest, which she said will now put Defense Department rules in line with other federal policies. “With the inclusion of my amendment in the final defense bill, we’ve made an important step to restoring equity to military servicewomen,” Shaheen said in a statement, “after three decades of a policy that discriminated against women who put their lives on the line for us.” 

CYBERSECURITY. The bill now requires defense contractors to report any cyberattacks on their systems to the Pentagon, which Levin hailed as "significant progress" for U.S. cybersecurity efforts that have so far floundered on the Hill. 

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