Senate panel cuts $6.4 billion from Pentagon request

After a week of closed-door negotiations, the Senate Armed Services Committee has approved a $682.5 billion defense authorization bill, trimming a modest $6.4 billion from the Pentagon's request for next year.

The sprawling defense bill, which sets Pentagon policy in addition to prescribing funding levels, includes language on detainees supported by both parties that would permanently prohibit the use of Defense Department funds for building facilities in the U.S. to house detainees now held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But in a conference call with reporters Friday, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the bill does not prohibit the transfer of detainees to existing facilities in the United States for trials.

The detainee provision, adopted by a 25-1 vote, would also establish limitations on transferring detainees to other countries "to ensure that all possible steps have been taken" so they do not return to the battlefield.

In addition, the language creates a statutory basis for detaining terrorist suspects indefinitely. Under current law, there is no procedure for detaining prisoners long-term.

"We're in the middle of a war that doesn't have an end," Levin said.

The language also requires the Defense Department to issue procedures addressing "ambiguities" in the process set up to review detainees held at Guantanamo, giving the Secretary of Defense final responsibility for any decisions to release or transfer the prisoners. In addition, the language would clarify procedures for guilty pleas in trials by military commission.

On Afghanistan, the bill requires the Defense Department to establish benchmarks for progress in transferring security of Afghanistan to the country's police and military forces, and requires defense officials to brief Congress twice a year.

Earlier in the week, Levin had signaled that he may make a pre-emptive strike at the fiscal 2012 defense budget to jumpstart the planned $400 billion in cuts to security spending over the next 12 years. But the committee's $6.4 billion cut is smaller than the $9 billion cut approved earlier this week by the House Appropriations Committee.

The committee-approved authorization bill does make some reductions to defense programs, including cutting nine aircraft and $496 million from the Navy's popular F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jet program. The panel says in its statement that the program was cut because of additional funds for the fighters provided in last year's war funding account.

The committee also cut $127.1 million of the $877.1 million requested to develop the Air Force's next aerial refueling tanker, arguing that the amount in the Pentagon's budget proposal exceeds what program officials need to keep the tanker effort on track.

The bill authorizes $10.3 billion for missile defense programs, including the $8.6 billion requested for the Missile Defense Agency. But the bill cuts all funding for the Medium Extended Air Defense System, which the Pentagon has deemed unaffordable and no longer plans to buy. The Army, however, was locked into paying its 57 percent share of the initial development to avoid high termination costs and to benefit its two international partners, Germany and Italy.

The bill also cuts more than $1 billion from military construction and family housing programs, and another $1.1 billion for the acquisition of contract services.

But the measure adds $322 million to the Army's effort to modernize the M1 Abrams tank, which would allow the service to upgrade an additional 49 tanks next year. Service officials had planned to upgrade only 21 tanks. Boosting funds for the program, according to the committee, would allow the Army "to preserve minimum industrial capability" through next year.

The bill also authorizes the $6.9 billion requested to procure F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft for the Navy and Air Force. But the measure puts new requirements on the program, including ensuring that the next contract for the fifth-generation fighters is a fixed-price deal. The committee's bill also requires the contractor, Lockheed Martin, to absorb all cost overruns.

The F-35, which is the largest program on the Pentagon's books, has suffered through heavy cost overruns and schedule delays. The Defense Department has said it has made significant progress on the Navy and Air Force versions of the stealth fighter, but the Marine Corps variant continues to have problems and has been placed on a two-year probation.

In a statement on Friday, Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., said the committee rejected his efforts "to stop the out-of-control overruns of the F-35 program."

"The Defense Authorization bill is an important piece of legislation while our country continues to be engaged in two wars, and therefore I voted to move the bill out of committee," McCain said. "Nevertheless, I will continue my efforts to fight the egregious and wasteful spending during debate on the floor of the Senate."

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