House puts imprint on Obama’s defense budget

WASHINGTON — Domestic military base closings are out. The Global Hawk drone is back in.

A Republican-led House panel is putting its mark on President Barack Obama’s proposed defense budget, reversing several of the Pentagon’s wishes. Members of six Armed Services subcommittees, working Thursday and Friday, clearly followed the adage of their chairman, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., who earlier this year sent a blunt message to the Obama administration: “While the president proposes, Congress disposes.”

The Pentagon wanted another round of base closings in this deficit-cutting era. The Readiness Subcommittee said no, with Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., calling the notion “flawed.”

The Pentagon wanted to retire 18 of the Air Force’s Global Hawk drones from the Block 30 program. The Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee rejected that idea, adding $260 million to continue operating the high-altitude unmanned aircraft used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“Each Global Hawk was procured for more than $100 million, so shelving them when they are almost brand new at a time when the demand for intelligence has never been higher makes no sense,” said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas.

This week marked the start of an annual congressional rite — the show of strength by the military panels as they acquiesce to some Pentagon budget requests, reject others and tweak plenty more. The process this year comes amid demands for greater austerity, driven by the agreement last year between Obama and congressional Republicans to reduce projected defense spending by $487 billion over 10 years.

That agreement set the defense budget at $546 billion for next year. The president proposed $4.6 billion more and House Republicans added $3.7 billion to that amount by cutting safety-net programs for the poor.

Calculating how much to spend on priorities within the military with fewer dollars than had been projected is the challenge for the Armed Services committee members in both houses of Congress.

“The pressure we’re all under is the money,” Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the panel’s top Democrat, said in an interview. “It’s less money than people would like, so you have to figure out how you make those decisions.”

The full House Armed Services Committee will meet May 9 to finalize their version of the defense budget. The Senate Armed Services panel gets its turn the week of May 21. Looming over the process is the possibility of automatic, across-the-board cuts dictated by the failure of the so-called congressional supercommittee to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in reductions over 10 years. The Pentagon could face another 10-year cut of around $500 billion, beginning in January 2013.

For now, lawmakers are focused on putting together a budget for next year.

Members of the panel resisted the Air Force’s plan to mothball 18 of the Global Hawk drones. The service had said the aircraft’s cost at $215 million apiece make it less cost-effective than the existing U-2 spy planes that burst on the scene in the 1950s and were critical in finding Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. The military wanted to rely on the U-2 instead of the Global Hawk drones.

Northrop Grumman, the aircraft’s prime contractor, builds the planes in Palmdale, Calif., located in McKeon’s district. The aircraft is based at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville, Calif., soon to be in the redrawn congressional district of Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, also a member of the committee.

The program also is one of many that the Air Force manages at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the district of Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, another committee member.

Tactical Subcommittee Chairman Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., pointed out that last June a senior Pentagon official had called the Global Hawk essential to national security with no alternative at less cost. Eight months later, the planes were out.

“The Global Hawk aircraft provides time on station and range that no other aircraft can provide,” Bartlett said.

At least one committee move was widely hailed, especially amid an election-year fight over who is doing more for Israel — Obama or Republicans.

The Strategic Forces subcommittee boosted money for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system by $680 million. The system is designed to intercept short-range rockets and mortars. The money would be in addition to the $205 million that the Obama administration and Congress agreed to in a special request in the 2011 budget and would cover several years, through fiscal 2015.

“Securing additional funding to deploy additional Iron Dome batteries is an Israeli necessity, an American priority, and a strategic imperative,” said Rep. Howard Berman of California, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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