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House subcommittee votes to roll back parts of Defense personnel system

GOP staffers may seek to reverse action in full committee markup.

The House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee voted Tuesday to roll back parts of the new National Security Personnel System, enacted to replace the civil service system at the Defense Department.

Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, said the legislation would restore employee's collective bargaining rights and access to an appeal process and "would improve the performance appraisal system," which determines whether workers get pay raises.

GOP staffers said Republicans may seek to remove the changes to the civilian personnel policy during a full committee markup Wednesday.

The subcommittee also voted to authorize the same $100,000 death benefit military personnel receive for Defense civilian workers killed in a combat zone. The Pentagon also is required to report on all the special pay and benefits civil employees can get when deployed and to suggest any new provisions that might be helpful.

The vote came as the panel unanimously approved its part of the fiscal 2008 defense authorization, adding funds for training, equipment maintenance and military health services.

The panel's bipartisan action completes subcommittee work on the authorization bill (H.R. 1585) clearing the way for Wednesday's full committee markup, which is expected to be more combative.

Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, expressed his concern about the decline in combat readiness that he attributed to the intense and prolonged engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are wearing out both people and equipment. "The problems have grown to immense proportion and something must be done. This mark is a step in the right direction," Ortiz said.

To reverse the drop in readiness, the panel added to the president's budget request $250 million for unfunded training requirements, $165 million "to restore depot maintenance shortfalls" and $50 million to augment the Defense Health Program in response to problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other facilities.

The mark also provides more than $21 billion for military construction and family housing, including funds for new facilities to support an additional 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines, and $8.4 billion to continue the changes required by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process.

It also requires the Pentagon to report to Congress on the readiness of the National Guard to support the governors in homeland security and following natural disasters and to provide plans for restoring readiness levels and replenishing the equipment and supplies taken from the war reserve stocks to support the war.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., filling in for ailing ranking member Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., echoed Ortiz's concerns about the state of military readiness and his view of the positive effect of the subcommittee's action.

Jones expressed particular pleasure over the reporting requirement on National Guard readiness for domestic duties, citing the problems the Kansas Guard had in responding to the weekend's devastating tornadoes because some of its personnel and equipment were in Iraq.

Although no amendments were offered in the subcommittee, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., said he was disturbed by a provision in the chairman's mark requiring the Navy secretary to report on the future of the East Coast Master Jet Base, which is the title applied to Oceania Naval Air Station in Forbes' district. Forbes said the status of Oceania supposedly had been decided by actions following the BRAC commission report and warned that the report could start "a dangerous journey, the end of which I cannot perceive."

Forbes said he might address the issue in the full committee.

Also, there likely will be fights over the sharp cuts other subcommittee's made in funding for National Missile Defense, the Army's Future Combat System and other programs.

There could be bipartisan objections to the language House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., is expected to propose to require the administration to provide detailed reports on progress and plans for Iraq. That is a major step back from pull-out deadlines that Democrats put into the emergency war supplemental funding, which President Bush vetoed last week.