WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate passed a defense authorization bill Thursday that includes a slew of Alaska-focused provisions, including language that lawmakers hope will keep an embattled U.S. Army post in Alaska.
The House passed the same conference report on Friday and President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law. All three members of Alaska's congressional delegation voted in favor of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.
The bill gives troops a 2.1 percent raise, the highest in years; advances efforts to plan a "strategic Arctic Port"; requires missile defense tests; transfers lands from the U.S. Air Force to companies and communities in Alaska; and boosts the number of troops remaining in the Army, likely to ensure that the 4-25 Infantry Brigade Combat Team will stay put at Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson.
The annual NDAA directs the operations of the Defense Department, though it is not a direct spending bill.
Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan worked as a driving force on the bill through his seat on the Armed Services Committee, garnering 21 separate provisions and amendments included in the bill.
In an interview last week, anticipating passage of the bill, Sullivan said the NDAA contains a lot of things "that are going to be good, I think, for the country, good for Alaska," but raising the number of Army troops "is the big one."
Rep. Don Young, working his long-held relationships in the House, was able to secure land transfers and higher reimbursement allowances for rural Alaskans from his side of the Capitol.
"Overall it's a good defense bill … There's a lot of good things for Alaska," including provisions that are likely to keep troops from being pulled out of Alaska, Young said in an interview soon after the House passed the bill by a vote of 375 to 34.
"But I think the main thing it does is give the military personnel a raise," which was "long overdue," Young said.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski secured an amendment to the bill that strikes down a proposal to pare back military housing allowances that Fairbanks soldiers worried could cut funds that pay for costly heat and power bills there.
The Department of Defense will issue a report on how to reduce energy costs at military installations with costs in the top 20 percent per capita, which include some in Alaska. That came from an amendment offered by Sullivan.
Murkowski thanked Sullivan and Young for their "tireless efforts to ensure Alaska remains in the forefront as defense decisions are made," in a statement released after the Senate passed the conference report Thursday by a vote of 92-7.
The bill includes land transfers long sought by Young and Murkowski, and ferried though by Sullivan. The Air Force will hand over its High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program facility to the University of Alaska, and the surrounding area to Native corporation Ahtna, Inc. The Air Force will also transfer 1,300 acres of land at the Champion Air Force Radar Station to the town of Galena, along the Yukon River.
Members of the National Guard living in remote areas of Alaska will also get a higher reimbursement for travel costs as they head to training. The provision boosts the reimbursement for people who live in areas with a population of 50,000 or less, or who have to commute via plane or boat from more than 75 miles away.
The bill also requires that the secretary of defense consider challenges unique to Alaska, Hawaii and other rural areas when implementing health care reforms for military members, their families and civilian employees.
Murkowski said the bill was "one of the most crucial pieces of legislation for Congress to pass," given threats across the globe and a "need to ensure that our military men and women have the tools and resources they need to defend our nation."
Worries about losing the 2,600 soldiers from the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division in Anchorage may be abated by a statement in the bill that notes Defense Department leadership support for keeping the troops there. The "Spartan Brigade" had been marked as part of an overall plan to cut 40,000 Army troops.
Sullivan convinced top Army leaders, who were going through confirmation hearings, to put a hold on the decision to cut the Alaska troops.
"And if you remember and you look — all the 40,000 who were announced that day — in Georgia, in Texas, those guys are gone," Sullivan said.
The bill passed Thursday also allows for 6,000 more troops than the approximately 470,000 already in the Army.