WASHINGTON — (TNS) Last week, House Armed Services subcommittees approved their portions of the Pentagon’s annual policy bill, indicating support for a big pay raise for troops and some resistance to ship retirements. But the panels left the biggest question unresolved: how much defense funding to authorize.

Republicans feel the Biden administration’s $773 billion request for fiscal 2023 is too low and are pressing for an increase that is significantly greater than the inflation rate, currently running above 8 percent.

Many hawkish Democrats may also want to see the topline increased, to give the Pentagon more buying power. But party leaders are leery of giving up the leverage of the Pentagon’s budget in funding negotiations for the entire government. In exchange for increasing the defense budget, which will frustrate the party’s progressive wing, Democrats are likely to push for increased domestic spending for key priorities.

Last year, strong bipartisan majorities in both chambers favored authorizing billions more than the Pentagon’s budget request.

For fiscal 2022, Congress appropriated $756.6 billion for the Defense Department, a total that includes supplemental funding for Ukraine and Afghanistan. Compared to that figure, President Joe Biden’s 2023 request is a 2.2 percent increase, a boost that fails to keep pace with current levels of inflation.

Further complicating matters this year, Congress just passed $40 billion in security aid for Ukraine, much of which went to the Defense Department to help replenish stores of weapons and equipment already provided to Ukraine. This may lessen some lawmakers’ appetite for giving the Pentagon billions of dollars more than it asked for.

Though the National Defense Authorization Act doesn’t actually appropriate money, it sets a mark that appropriators often heed. Congress has enacted it for 61 straight years, and it’s viewed as the closest thing to must-pass legislation that Congress takes up, besides appropriations.

A clearer picture should emerge on June 22, when the full House Armed Services Committee will meet for its annual markup, or perhaps on June 23, as the hearing often lasts well into the night.

Full committee consideration

One issue that appears likely to produce a lively debate is the Navy’s vision for the composition of its fleet in the future, and the steps it wants to take to get there.

In 2023, the Navy wants to build eight new ships while retiring 24 older or less useful hulls, an “invest to divest” approach to which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have objected.

While the number of new ships is somewhat misleading because of the way Congress sometimes pays for vessels across multiple fiscal years, it still represents a reduction in the total number of available warships. 

Under the Navy’s projections, the fleet will shrink from 298 to 280 over the next five years, something the service says is necessary to invest in technologies that will be useful in a future high-end fight. Given the Navy’s central role in power projection in the western Pacific region, China hawks argue that these reductions are short-sighted and dangerous.

Particularly in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some lawmakers argue that shrinking the size of the fleet could invite a Chinese attempt to annex Taiwan by force.

The Seapower Subcommittee’s markup would block five of the Navy’s planned 24 retirements, but the full Armed Services Committee could take another look at that decision.

The fate of two particular nuclear weapons is another issue left for the full committee to decide, since the Strategic Forces Subcommittee’s offering did not address them directly. The Biden administration wants to retire the B-83 nuclear bomb and has zeroed out funding for a nuclear-capable submarine-launched cruise missile developed during the Trump administration, moves Republicans strongly oppose.

The Personnel Subcommittee’s markup endorsed the 4.6 percent pay raise for servicemembers requested by the Biden administration, up from the 3 percent increase in last year’s bill. But with inflation currently measuring greater than 8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawmakers may want to revisit this issue as well.

Even after the House Armed Services Committee hammers out all of these issues and sends the measure to the full House, they will be far from settled.

The Senate is assembling its own version of the annual defense policy bill, and markups are scheduled to take place this week. Unlike the House panel’s deliberations, which are open to the public, the Senate conducts most of its markups in closed sessions, including consideration of the entire bill, which is scheduled to take place on Wednesday.

Once both chambers have passed their respective bills, lawmakers will reconcile them in a conference committee, whose deliberations are also conducted behind closed doors.

Both chambers will then have to pass the merged bill in order to send it to the president’s desk.