WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump made rebuilding the U.S. armed forces a signature promise during the presidential campaign, but it's the GOP-controlled Congress that's leading the way by adding tens of billions of dollars to the annual defense policy bill to pay for active-duty troops, combat aircraft, and ships that he didn't request.
The House Armed Services Committee approved its version of a $696 billion bill for 2018 just before midnight Wednesday by a 60-1 vote. Hours earlier, the Senate Armed Services Committee unveiled a $700 billion blueprint to revive a military that lawmakers say is long overdue for an overhaul. Both committees described Trump's budget request for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 as insufficient to undo the damage caused by spending too little on a fighting force that's been at continuous combat for almost a decade and a half.
"For six years, we have been just getting by — cutting resources as the world becomes more dangerous, asking more and more of those who serve, and putting off the tough choices," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the committee's chairman.
But a frequently polarized Congress may be its own worst enemy when it comes to getting their proposals for the extra money across the finish line. Lawmakers will have to agree to roll back a 2011 law that set strict limits on military spending. That's a tall order, said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, who noted that lifting the so-called budget caps would take 60 votes in the Senate.
"Right now, we're just hoping," said Smith, the top Democrat on the House panel. "We're doing the $696 billion and we're hoping that between now and Oct. 1 some path that at the moment is completely blocked and completely unforeseen is going to emerge."
While the House plan was publicly released earlier this week, the Senate committee's version was released Wednesday evening, upping their House counterparts by $4 billion. Approved by the committee 27-0, the Senate bill would provide $640 billion for core Pentagon operations, such as buying weapons and paying the troops, and another $60 billion for wartime missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Trump's budget request sought $603 billion for basic functions and $65 billion for overseas missions.
The Senate panel authorized $10.6 billion for 94 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, which is two dozen more than Trump requested. The bill provides $25 billion to pay for 13 ships, which is $5 billion and five ships more than the Trump sought. That includes money for acquiring Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Virginia-class nuclear submarines.
The troops would get a 2.1 percent pay raise under the Senate plan, which is less than the House Armed Services Committee approved. The Senate bill would add 5,000 active-duty troops to the Army, while the House seeks an increase of 10,000 soldiers. Those and other differences will have to be resolved as the legislation moves forward.
During the House committee's hours-long work on the bill, lawmakers narrowly rejected a bid by Democrats to compel the Air Force to detail how much has been spent on trips that Trump has made to his Florida estate and other properties he owns.
Republicans denounced the amendment as "gotcha politics" and an attempt to litigate the 2016 election. But Democrats fired back, saying Trump has invited the scrutiny by refusing to divest himself from his business empire or release his taxes.
"This is different," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., "This is unprecedented."
The measure authored by Rep. Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz., lost 31-31. Ties count as defeats. The amendment would have required the Air Force to regularly submit presidential travel expense reports to Congress. Each report would have included "costs incurred" for travel to a property owned or operated by Trump or his immediate family, according to the amendment.
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said the committee had no business asking for the travel costs.
"This is the House Armed Services Committee," he said. "We don't oversee the federal bureau of ethics."
Conaway said the Defense Department can't audit its books and records as it is. Adding another requirement for detailed cost information would make the problem even worse.
"This will add one more straw to that camel," Conaway said.
As president, Trump flies on Air Force One. He is accompanied by staff members and military aides. Going to his properties incurs additional security expenses and support equipment, unlike a trip to Camp David, a government-owned retreat in Maryland that is protected year-round as a military installation.