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Compromise NDAA Blocks A-10 Retirement, OKs White House's Syrian Rebels Plan

WASHINGTON — House and Senate negotiators have agreed on a Pentagon policy measure that blocks A-10 retirements and greenlights plans to arm Syrian rebels, a measure that should hit the House floor this week.

Senior aides from the House and Senate Armed Services committees told reporters Tuesday a compromise 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would clear the military to spend $519 billion (including $19 billion for the Energy Department) in base funds and $63.7 billion for America’s conflicts.

The Air Force had proposed retiring its A-10 attack plane fleet to save billions over the jets’ remaining life. But lawmakers rejected the idea, saying, among other arguments, the planes are needed now in Iraq.

The final NDAA includes “a prohibition on flying hours,” one senior aide said. “We preserved the option for some relief” due to Air Force concerns with language in the Senate bill, he added.

The compromise language, if approved before Congress leaves next week, would add $350 million so the Air Force could fund A-10 operations and maintenance efforts, the aides said.

“If they don’t need all of it, we have report language that they reprogram it to higher priorities,” a senior Senate aide said. “So some money could become available.”

Like on other weapon programs, the compromise measure proposes only a one-year plan for the A-10 fleet.

On Navy cruisers, the measure would allow the sea service to “stand down two” ships in 2015. But it says nothing about what the service might be allowed to do in 2016 and beyond, the aides said.

The bill also would authorize the Navy to buy three littoral combat ships, while approving incremental funding for LPD-28, an amphibious transport ship.

The negotiators waded into testy waters over an Army plan to shrink its force and shift Apache helicopters from the National Guard to the active force.

The final NDAA includes a “prohibition on helicopter retirements in 2015” with a hybrid of House and Senate language designed to hold off on a final verdict of the service’s plans until two panels have weighed in. One will be a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on the proposal, and the other an independent commission’s report.

“We didn’t want to lock them in,” a senior House aide told reporters. “They can proceed with what they need to do. ... We don’t want to take sides until that [data] comes in.”

The aides said the bill, slated to be filed later Tuesday, added more than $300 million for additional E/A-18G Growler electronic aircraft, though they were unable to provide a number of planes.

The House aide said both chambers “have some members who hope we can deal with sequestration” when the GOP-run Congress is seated in January.

If congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama can finally reach a sequester-addressing fiscal deal, the House aide said, “some of these [weapons program] reductions wouldn’t be necessary.”

The measure’s war-funding section includes monies to send additional American forces to Iraq. It factors in a recent White House request for its counter-Islamic State conflict, including $3.4 billion to fund US operations against the violent Sunni group and another $1.6 billion to train and equip Iraqi forces.

The compromise measure shifts language authorizing Obama to arm and train Syrian rebels into the annual Pentagon policy bill.

The senior aides told reporters they made some minor changes to the Syrian train-and-equip section, mostly because additional months allowed them to better understand the White House’s plans.

“I think the biggest thing was understanding more precisely what the mission entails and giving them the authority to conduct that mission,” the House aide said. That includes in which countries the training will take place, the kinds of facilities needed, and other things.

That additional time meant “we were able to match [the bill] with what current law allows them to do,” the House aide said.

His Senate counterpart added: “I don’t think you’ll see major changes there.”

The bill is expected to be voted on by the full House under a closed rule — no amendments will be debated or voted on. The House aide expects smooth passage in the lower chamber.

It would then go to the Senate, where things are trickier.

SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters earlier Tuesday that he expects the upper chamber to take up the NDAA next week.

“I don’t think we’ll get it from the House in time” for a vote this week, Levin said.

Once it arrives on the Senate docket, its sponsors will “be asking people to pass the bill without amendments,” the Senate aide said.

But if Republican members insist on amending the bill, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would have to file cloture on the bill. That would start a 30-hour clock and set up a vote to end debate, with a 60-vote threshold. If that hurdle is cleared, an up-or-down vote requiring 51 votes could then be scheduled.

“We think we have enough votes to pass it,” the Senate aide said with a half-smile, half-grimace. “But life in the Senate is always difficult.”