By Richard Lardner
WASHINGTON — House and Senate negotiators have agreed on an annual defense policy bill that authorizes $700 billion for the Pentagon in the 2018 fiscal year, a dramatic increase over the amount President Donald Trump sought as lawmakers aim to restock what they say is a depleted U.S. military.
The bill allots just over $634 billion for core Pentagon operations and nearly $66 billion for wartime missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, according to summaries of the legislation released Wednesday by the House and Senate Armed Services committees. The funding boost paysfor more troops, jet fighters, ships and other weapons the bill's backers said are needed to halt an erosion of the military's combat readiness.
Trump's 2018 request sought $603 billion for basic functions and $65 billion for overseas missions. Republican defense hawks in particular were surprised the president didn't seek more given his bullish campaign talk about rebuilding the armed forces. But they kept their criticisms largely to themselves as they set about boosting the Pentagon's budget to a level higher than at any point during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet the lawmakers pushing the hardest for the big increase still face an uphill battle. For the billions of additional dollars to actually materialize, Congress first will have to agree to roll back a 2011 law that set strict limits on most federal spending. But that won't be easy. Lifting the budget caps will face resistance from Democrats who also are seeking to increase the budgets for domestic agencies.
The policy bill would give U.S. troops a 2.4 percent pay raise, which is slightly higher than the wage increase the Pentagon had proposed.
The blueprint calls for 7,500 additional active-duty Army soldiers and 1,000 more National Guard and Army reserve troops. The Navy would get 4,000 more active-duty sailors and 1,000 additional reservists. The Marine Corps will see an increase of 1,000 active-duty Marines, and the Air Force is due for 4,100 more active-duty airmen, 900 National Guardsmen and 800 reservists.
The defense bill provides money for 90 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 20 more than Trump asked for, as well as 24 F/A-18 Super Hornet jet fighters, 10 more than requested.
The budget also includes three Littoral Combat Ships, two beyond the budget request. The ships are new to the fleet and operate in congested areas near the shore against small boats and mines. Overall, the bill provides $6.3 billion more than Trump sought for five additional "battle force ships," according to the Senate summary.
The legislation folds in the nearly $6 billion Trump requested Monday for urgent missile defense improvements to counter the threat from North Korea, increased U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and speedy repairs to Navy ships in the Asia-Pacific theater.
A large chunk of the money would be used for the construction of an additional ground-based interceptor field at Fort Greely, Alaska; the initial procurement of 20 new ground-based interceptors; ship-based missiles; and interceptors for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, a U.S. mobile anti-missile system. Many of these specific increases had already been addressed in earlier versions of the bill.
The bill also covers the $1.2 billion Trump sought to allow the Defense Department to deploy an additional 3,500 U.S. troops to Afghanistan as part of the president's new strategy for the country where the U.S. has been fighting since 2001.
The legislation also fully pays for repairs to the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald. Both ships from the Pacific-based 7th Fleet were damaged in deadly collisions that led to eight top Navy officers, including the 7th Fleet commander, being fired from their jobs.
The legislation is expected to be released as soon as Thursday. The defense bill is essentially silent on Trump's proposal to exclude transgender people from military service, according to congressional staff members who weren't authorized to discuss the legislation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Trump had ordered a reinstatement of the long-standing policy that barred transgender individuals from joining the military; service members who were revealed to be transgender were subject to discharge. A federal judge last month barred the Trump administration from proceeding with the plan.
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