Senate Defense bill: yes to funding abortion and the Air Force, no to biofuels

Republicans of the Senate Armed Services Committee netted some crucial wins during the markup of their version of the Fiscal 2013 Defense appropriations bill, making a few compromises along the way.

Committee leaders emerged from a three-and-a-half day, closed-door markup session to announce that the bill had received unanimous approval — after making a total of 150 alterations to President Obama’s proposal. Unlike the House version of the bill, which passed last week after the addition of $4 billion in funding to the package, the Senate bill stayed in line with the president’s budget of roughly $631 billion, including overseas combat operations funding.

Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters that the committee had ditched the White House proposal to make deep cuts to the Air Force National Guard and Reserve, totaling nearly 10,000 jobs at bases located throughout the country.
“We rejected the Air Force plan,” Levin said, calling the proposed cuts disproportionate and poorly conceived. “We fully funded the equipment and personnel for the Air Guard and we provided all the end strength that’s needed to preserve the manpower.”

The bill now also recommends that a national commission be created to preside over future decisions governing Air Force cutbacks.

“Never underestimate the influence of the National Guard,” committee ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said with a chuckle.

Another crucial win: approval of additions to the bill by McCain and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) that would restrict plans by the administration to invest heavily in expensive biofuels to power the military fleet. As Human Events reported earlier this month, Obama’s budget proposal includes about $2 billion in the next fiscal year for green research and development, as well as energy efficiency plans. Plans for a “Great Green Fleet” that would debut during training exercises this summer involve use of a biofuel blend that costs roughly $26 per gallon, or about five times more than traditional fuel.

Details about the specific changes to the appropriations bill regarding biofuels have not yet been made public.

Other provisions would require the Defense Department to scale back its bloated civilian workforce by five percent over the next five years in order to cut costs, McCain said.

Levin and McCain also successfully added language that would place pressure on the government of Pakistan to walk back a 33-year prison sentence delivered to Dr. Shakil Afridi, the physician who helped the U.S. to locate Osama bin Laden.

The committee also approved a controversial provision that would permit the Federal government to pay for abortions for service members, Levin said, but added that the provision would only apply to victims of rape and incest, keeping it in line with the Hyde Amendment.

The Senate expects to pass its version of the bill — one of the few it has a perfect record of pushing through the gridlock — in June or July. Still unclear is how sequestration might affect all this budget planning. If the sequester mechanism takes effect on the first of next year, military departments will receive additional budget cuts totaling $500 billion over the next 10 years.