Senate set to take last steps on 2019 defense bill

Senate set to take last steps on 2019 defense bill

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President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Drum, New York, last week (Sgt. Thomas Scaggs/U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON — The Senate is scheduled to begin its final work today on the last steps to final passage of the 2019 defense money bill. If approved it will give the Pentagon the second installment of a payday that should produce more troops, better pay, increased training and more ships, planes and other equipment.

The $675 billion bill has strong bipartisan support, as it provides the money — in some areas — for more weapons sought by either the White House or the Pentagon.

The 2019 defense bill follows a roughly $700 billion defense bill for 2018. That gave the Pentagon two huge flows of cash after years of being under-budgeted because of Congress’s inability to complete budgets. Next year, Budget Control Act caps are scheduled to return which could limit defense spending and reduce what the total by more than $70 billion.

Among areas of Senate largess: the 2019 bill includes money for 89 F-35 fighters, the Pentagon sought 77; and $24 billion for construction of 13 new ships, including two littoral combat ships. The Navy requested just one and the White House opposes a second ship.

There is also some political language in the legislation that the White House opposes, such mandating that the U.S. troop contingent in South Korea cannot be reduced below 22,000 unless after allies are consulted and Defense Secretary James Mattis certifies it will not hurt U.S. security. It also opposes extending prohibition on any cooperation beyond deconfliction between the U.S. and Russian militaries.

The legislation also bans the transfer of F-35 fighters to Turkey, of which Ankara is a significant buyer and supporter. It also commands the Pentagon to designate a senior official within 90 days to oversee civilians war casualties.

More politics may become part of the bill. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and others want to take a harder line on U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, which is producing increasing numbers of civilian casualties and squalor, according to independent reports.

The Pentagon provides aerial refueling and intelligence to Saudi Arabia for its offensives in the three-year-old Yemen war. Murphy and others want to block all U.S. support to the Saudi coalition in the war. A vote on amendments are being discussed, Murphy said in a statement.

Congress had already included a provision that could cut off funding for the U.S. refueling mission.

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