Washington – Connecticut lawmakers were split Friday over a massive defense bill that would authorize billions of dollars for the state’s defense industry, but has provoked a veto threat from President Obama for boosting military spending in an account that’s out of the reach of a spending cap.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District; and John Larson, D-1st District; were among a minority of 41 Democrats to vote for the $612 billion National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved 269-151. Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and Jim Himes, D-4th District, voted with most of their party in opposing the legislation.
Democratic Party leaders urged members to oppose the bill because it would authorize a proposal in the GOP budget that puts $38 billion in an overseas contingency operations account that would not be counted against budget caps. Obama has threatened to veto the defense bill over this provision, as well as others, including one that would bar him from closing the military detention facility in Guantanamo, Cuba.
DeLauro said she voted against the bill because the overseas contingency operations account “is essentially a gimmick” that would “further erode resources from non-defense, discretionary spending.”
Himes said the bill “uses funding tricks” to avoid sequester, across-the-board cuts that will be imposed if budget caps are breached.
“By shifting billions of dollars from the baseline budget to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) war-funding account, this bill technically falls in line with sequester levels, but it’s all smoke and mirrors hiding a higher price tag, which is partially why the president has threatened to veto it,” Himes said. ”If we want to continue these spending levels on our military, that is a debate I am willing to have, but it must be done in an open and honest way.”
Courtney, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he disagreed with boosting the overseas contingency account, also calling it a “gimmick.” But Courtney said he voted for the bill because it is the result of bipartisan work in the Armed Services panel and would help Connecticut’s defense industry.
“The alternative — to oppose this critical policy bill and abide the restrictive budget caps on this measure that will prevent critical investments in military assets — was not an approach I could support,” Courtney said.
Larson said the bill “has significant flaws,” but voted for it because he is “ever mindful of the needs of our country, military, and the individuals and businesses that comprise Connecticut’s manufacturing base.”
The House defense bill would increase the Pentagon’ s request for Sikorsky Aircraft’s Black Hawk helicopters and for F-35s fighter jets, whose engines are built by Pratt & Whitney.
It also would authorize $5.3 billion to continue the two-a-year pace of construction for Virginia-class submarines by Electric Boat and would provide $10 million to upgrade C-130 military transport aircraft flown by the National Guard in Connecticut and other states.
The bill would authorize $11 million for a new “ready” building at Camp Hartell in Windsor Locks for the Connecticut Air National Guard that would house first responders in the event of a suspected or actual nuclear, biological, high explosive or chemical attack.
The bill would also authorized the first allocation, nearly $1.4 billion, to a fund established by Congress last year to help the Navy replace an aging fleet of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines that were built by Electric Boat.
To ease pressure on the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, the “National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund,” would be funded from surplus money the Pentagon finds in other accounts.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., proposed an amendment to strip the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund from the bill.
Blumenauer said the Ohio replacement program will cost nearly $140 billion.
“Rather than a free-for-all, the Navy should be required to make difficult decisions about how to prioritize investments in its surface and submarine fleets,” he said. “The Sea-Based Deterence Fund is an illusion of affordability. This fund may allow the Navy to build all of the ships and submarines it wants without running afoul of the Navy’s budgetary caps; however, there’s no getting around the fact that the money will have to come from somewhere.”
Blumenauer’s amendment was defeated on a 375-43 vote.
But the Senate Armed Services
Committee approved a defense authorization bill Friday that would not fund the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund. A committee aide said the money the Pentagon has requested for the Ohio-class replacement submarine is limited to research and development money.
“R&D money is not what the fund is intended for,” the aide said. “It’s for procurement.”
The Senate bill does provide $1.4 billion to continue work on the Ohio-Class replacement – in a Navy research and development fund.