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Military budget in massive spending bill would usher in pay raises, new ships and planes

The U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017. (Bill Clark/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)

With a partial government shutdown looming, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were racing against the clock Thursday to approve a massive spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that includes more than $650 billion in national defense spending.

The fifth temporary funding measure for fiscal year 2018 runs out late Friday and would trigger the third federal shutdown this year. On Wednesday evening, Congress unveiled a $1.3 trillion, 2,232-page bill that, if approved, would avert the shutdown. The House approved the plan Thursday afternoon.

The military portion of the spending bill includes a significant hike in the Pentagon budget that would include a 2.4 percent pay raise for servicemembers, fund new ships and aircrafts and direct new spending on missile defense.

“After years of neglect, this body is taking the important step of reshaping and rebuilding the United States military,” Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said Thursday in introducing the measure on the House floor. “It’s far more than just national defense. It is also trying to give better protection to the men and women who protect us. The men and women who today are in cold, lonely, hot, dangerous places around the globe.”

The defense budget closely follows the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which was passed last year and authorizes spending but doesn’t actually appropriate the money. However, since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, the government has been operating off a series of temporary funding measures.

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The Department of Defense budget gained momentum last month when congressional members reached a two-year deal to bust budgetary caps that limited military spending this year to $549 million.

The spending bill, which funds the overall government including the military, directs $23.8 billion for 14 new ships, $10.2 billion for 90 Joint Strike Fighters and nearly $1.8 billion for 24 F/A-18 Super Hornets.

The plan also directs for $11.5 billion in spending for the Missile Defense Agency, $1.6 billion for 30 Apache helicopters, $1.1 billion for 56 Black Hawk helicopters and $34.4 billion in defense health and military family programs.

“It makes a down payment on the buildup that has been advertised by defense hawks and the president,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “They are putting their money where their mouth is.”

The plan also directs spending hikes in research and development, and reflects alignment with the National Defense Strategy to prepare the country for a potential fight against Russia and China.

“I’m encouraged by the [increases],” said Lauren Fish, a defense strategies research associate for the Center for a New American Security, another Washington think tank. “But the question, as always, comes down to whether we’re buying advanced capabilities for that future fight or just more of the same …The proof will be in the pudding.”

The House passed the plan by a vote of 256-167, sending the measure to the Senate for approval. The spending bill would then go to the president to sign.

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Considering the potential for hours of debate, it was unclear Thursday whether members could avoid a shutdown. At least one member, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was threatening to repeat efforts that led to a brief government shutdown in February.

Paul and other members have raised concerns about the impact of increased spending, which is expected to fuel the deficit. The plan marks more than $60 billion above 2017 spending levels, going beyond what was originally requested by President Donald Trump.

“I expect this bill to pass, and, in all likelihood, for a shutdown to be avoided,” said Molly Reynolds, a governance studies fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “The biggest remaining obstacle is whether a single senator… will hold up a vote in the Senate. He or one of his colleagues could do so, which would potentially push us past the … deadline. If that happens, we could have a short-funding lapse, but probably not a multi-day shutdown.”

The overall boost in military funding comes in the wake of a deadly year for the U.S. military. More servicemembers have died in training efforts than in combat in the last year, defense hawks have said.

Last week, nine servicemembers were lost in equipment failures and crashes, said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.

“The military has been hollowed out for many years,” Ryan said Thursday on the lower chamber’s floor. “What this ultimately is about is giving our military the tools and resources it needs to do its job.”

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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