WASHINGTON – A key panel of House and Senate members have reached a deal on the massive defense bill, pushing forward a nearly $700 billion plan to boost pay raises for servicemembers, fund new ships and aircraft, as well as increase missile defense.
Among the funding efforts in the defense budget for fiscal year 2018 are a 2.4 percent pay increase for servicemembers, extension of necessary pay and bonuses to help with retention and costly repairs for two Navy ships that encountered deadly crashes during the summer. But it passes on a plan to create a new Space Corps, according to senior aides of the Senate and House Armed Services committees who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The proposed budget also funds an increase in the number of servicemembers in the military from fiscal year 2017.
The plan “builds on the strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate,” a senior Armed Services committee staffer said.
Though the plan has overcome several hurdles already, an approval by a congressional conference committee now sends it for a vote in both chambers and a budget fight on how to fund the major increase in military spending.
The bipartisan deal for the defense bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, was revealed Wednesday by senior aides of both Armed Services committees.
There are plenty of challenges ahead, however.
The proposed defense budget, which now totals $699.6 billion, surpasses budget caps of $549 billion for defense spending and will require new congressional action to be enacted. Without it, the effort could trigger automatic, across-the-board budget cuts.
The budget also passed on some proposals, declining on a House plan for the creation of Space Corps, a new military service that would be an arm of the Air Force.
The idea drew opposition along the way from several key figures, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The Senate, in their opposition, went as far as including language in their bill prohibiting a Space Corps.
Now, under Wednesday’s deal, the bill directs for the study of the creation of a Space Corps.
The study will “look at the long term prospects of creating a military department” for Space Corps, the committee staffer said.
The defense bill also directs for the funding of repairs to the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain.
Both ships were badly damaged in separate, deadly crashes that left 17 sailors dead.
The overall boost in military funding request comes in the wake of a deadly year for the U.S. military when it comes to readiness and safety concerns.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said during the bill’s previous debate on the Senate floor that 185 servicemembers have died in military accidents in the last three years.
“We are killing more of our own people in training than our enemies are in combat,” McCain said during the September debate.
Wednesday’s defense budget deal also incorporates, if not goes above, several requests from President Donald Trump’s administration to boost defense funding.
On Monday, Trump asked to boost his original military funding request made earlier this year. In that amended plan, the president increased an earlier 2018 defense budget request by allocating an additional $4 billion for missile defense, $1.2 billion for the administration’s new Afghanistan strategy and another $700 million for Navy ship repairs.
The new missile defense funding will address an increasing threat from North Korea, Trump had said.
“This request supports additional efforts to detect, defeat, and defend against any North Korean use of ballistic missiles against the United States, its deployed forces, allies, or partners,” Trump said in the amendment request, which came in the form of a letter sent late Monday to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Earlier this year, Trump proposed a defense budget of $668 billion, a 5 percent increase above last year’s spending plan. But in light of a military readiness crisis, ongoing safety concerns and an expanding war strategy, some congressional defense hawks have said the president’s plan didn’t go far enough.
In July, the House approved a $696 billion defense budget, while the Senate approved a nearly $700 billion plan in September.
Both plans went further than the original Trump request. For example, the Senate bill allocates $8.5 billion for missile defense, which was $630 million more than what was originally requested by the Trump administration.
Trump also requested $1.2 billion for his South Asia strategy to address the increase of 3,500 in troops needed in Afghanistan. Trump unveiled his plans to boost U.S. forces there earlier this year.
Still, many of the efforts still must overcome budget caps to move forward.
In September, Congress approved a temporary funding measure that gave Congress at least three months to approve a new overall spending plan for fiscal 2018, which started Oct. 1.
But that also meant a new military budget was on the clock: Congress has until December to come up with a deal to fund its $700 billion defense proposal or it might have to delay its spending plans again.
Congress has been here before. Former President Barack Obama signed the 2017 defense policy plan on Dec. 23, 2016. But faced with another round of delays, a $1.1 trillion omnibus government spending bill that included the defense budget wasn’t approved until May. Until then, military operations were kept afloat by a short-term funding bill — as is the case now.