WASHINGTON, May 21 (Reuters) - The House of Representative on Wednesday edged toward passage of an annual defense policy bill that rejects Pentagon plans to retire older weapons systems and slow the rise in military pay as it implements long-term spending cuts ordered by Congress.
Most amendments to revive the Pentagon’s cost-cutting measures died in committee on Wednesday and never made it to the floor for consideration by the full House, which began debating the National Defense Authorization Act on Tuesday night.
The Republican-dominated House instead turned its attention to scores of amendments dealing with defense policy issues, from rights abuses by Boko Haram extremists in Africa to the contentious issue of shutting the prison for captured al Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“We have reached the point where we are now spending $2.7 million per inmate at Guantanamo Bay,” said Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “To contrast that, an inmate at a super max federal prison facility here in the U.S. costs roughly $78,000 a year.”
“The cost alone, I believe, is reason to close it,” he said.
But Representative Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican, disagreed, noting that New York City estimated in 2010 it would cost $200 million a year to provide security if some Guantanamo detainees were brought there for trial.
“Moving detainees to the U.S. would make the facility housing them a terrorist target,” she said.
Debate on the bill continued throughout the night on Wednesday. A final vote was expected Thursday.
The measure authorizes a Pentagon base budget of $496 billion for the 2015 fiscal year beginning in October. It also approves $17.6 billion for nuclear weapons activities by the Energy Department and $79.4 billion for the Afghanistan war.
The funding level keeps Pentagon spending essentially flat for a third consecutive year. The department is under a mandate from Congress and the president to cut nearly $1 trillion in spending over a decade.
In a bid to adapt to tighter budgets, the Pentagon proposed retiring the fleet of A-10 Warthog close air support aircraft and the high-altitude U-2 spy plane. It also sought to lay up 14 Navy ships, including 11 cruisers, for long-term maintenance.
The department moved to deal with personnel costs, which now make up half of its budget, proposing a series of compensation-related reforms, including a smaller-than-expected 1 percent pay hike for most military personnel.
The House Armed Services Committee rejected those proposals and offered a military pay increase of 1.8 percent. To offset the extra spending on weapons, the House cut money elsewhere.
Asked about the House move to keep the ships in service, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the top Navy officer, said usually when Congress rejects a plan to retire ships, it provides the funding needed to operate them.
“If they do that, then you know we actually come out ahead,” he said, noting the Navy made the proposal because of financial constraints, not because it was a “great idea.”
“We need ships,” he added. “This is all a fiscal issue.” (Editing by Eric Walsh)