Senate Republicans plan to bring an amendment to the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill that would call for a study into an East Coast antimissile site.
The amendment, to be filed by Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, to the bill (S 3254) represents a compromise position with the House-passed version (HR 4310), which would require a missile site be operational by the end of 2015.
Although studies of these kinds often are seen as innocuous, adoption of the amendment would be a victory of sorts for House Republican strategists who had hoped their original provision would initiate a debate on whether it was necessary to build an East Coast site to counter what they say are attempts by Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and an intercontinental ballistic missile capability in the coming years.
“I think we need a full study of the issue,” said Ayotte, who will sponsor the amendment along with Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn. “It’s hard to take issue with a study.”
Arizona Senator John McCain, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel, said in May that he was skeptical about the provision in the House version of the defense policy bill. Ayotte also was skeptical given the costs associated with building such a site without proper analysis.
U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons or long-range missiles to deliver them, although many Republicans argue that Iran could have that capability by 2015.
McCain said the committee had never discussed the issue of an additional missile defense site, but Ayotte said that she has heard anecdotally from the Pentagon that another site is not necessary. Nonetheless, she said some in-depth analysis is necessary.
She called her amendment a measured step. The provision in the House bill, added via amendment by Ohio Rep. Michael R. Turner, who is chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, would come at great cost.
The proposed antimissile site would add significant future costs at a time when the Defense Department faces tough spending caps over the next 10 years under last year’s deficit reduction law (PL 112-25). The caps would lead to savings of about $490 billion over that period.
The Congressional Budget Office said in a report on the House defense bill that the East Coast missile site would require funding totaling $3.6 billion through 2017 that the Pentagon has not requested.
While the House sought to sidestep the budget caps in the deficit reduction law in its fiscal 2013 budget deliberations, Senate Democrats and McCain intend to adhere more closely to the caps.
Privately, House Republican strategists admitted that they did not expect their missile site provision to survive a Senate-House conference on the defense bill. But they appear to have succeeded in opening a debate among lawmakers in the House and Senate about the potential threat from Iran and the need for a more robust defense.
One senior Republican aide said that since it would take several years to build such a facility, it is important to begin work because Iran could soon have a long-range missile and nuclear warhead.
The Senate panel approved its $631.4 billion bill in late May. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the bill could reach the floor for debate in late June or early July. The House passed its version in mid-May.