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House, Senate at odds over submarine spending

The U.S. House and Senate are at odds over submarine spending.

In their separate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021, a House proposal fully funds the construction of two Virginia-class attack submarines whereas a Senate proposal does not.

The Navy had planned to buy two Virginia submarines in the next fiscal year, but when the Trump administration unveiled its budget proposal earlier this year, it cut the second submarine from the service’s shipbuilding account.

The House Armed Services Committee is proposing to fully restore the funding for the second submarine — adding $2.16 billion to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget and making cuts to other parts of the budget to build the submarine sooner.

While the Senate Armed Services Committee’s proposal includes more funding for the Virginia program than what the Trump administration requested, the money is seen as a downpayment to pay for the second submarine down the line, not immediately. The committee has added $1.35 billion to the shipbuilding budget.

“Some of my colleagues prefer other types of naval platforms that were manufactured wholly or in part in their states. Some of those platforms are far less significant to our national security,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Blumenthal declined to name specific platforms or colleagues, but said he planned to fight to get the same amount of money authorized for the Virginia program in the House bill into the Senate bill.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, has made it a top priority to restore the second Virginia submarine in his role as chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee in the House, which has oversight of Navy shipbuilding. Courtney said the money in the Senate’s proposal funds the nuclear reactor for the second submarine, but not the rest of the submarine, despite the Navy listing the boat at the top of its unfunded priorities list for 2021— essentially a wish list of programs that were not included in the president's budget proposal.

In testimony to Congress, Navy officials have said there is growing demand for submarines as countries like China and Russia make major investments in their undersea fleets, and at the same time, the U.S. is facing a dip in the size of its attack submarine fleet in the next decade due to submarines being retired at a faster rate than they are being built. 

In addition to wanting to avoid a dip in the number of attack submarines, the Navy also wants to avoid a disruption to the submarine industrial base, Courtney said. Officials have said there could be layoffs at Electric Boat and Newport News, the private shipyards that build the attack submarines, if the second submarine is not funded next year. Those layoffs would come when EB would be beginning to build a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, known as the Columbia program — a top priority for both the Navy and Department of Defense, with officials from both stressing the program is on a tight timeline with no room for error.

“The younger workers we’ve been coaxing into the metal trades would be first ones out in terms of any layoffs and that’s not the kind of stability we’re looking for in the Columbia program,” Courtney said.

Congress is currently in recess. When lawmakers reconvene later this month, the full House and full Senate will begin to debate the defense bills. Any differences between the two bills, once passed by both chambers, will be negotiated by a bipartisan group of lawmakers into a final piece of legislation.

j.bergman@theday.com

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