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Congress Takes Up Defense Bill; Likely to Back Clinton

September 09, 1993|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congress began work Wednesday on a military spending bill for fiscal 1994, amid indications that lawmakers will provide President Clinton with essentially what he has asked for in shaping the military for the post-Cold War world.

In their first floor action after the August recess, the House and Senate opened debate on separate versions of the defense authorization bill, scheduling votes on amendments dealing with issues ranging from gays in the military to big-ticket weapons systems.

Despite the current budget squeeze, however, no major changes from Clinton's military spending plan are expected. Neither chamber appears prepared to slash the defense budget much below the relatively modest cuts that Clinton has proposed.

Clinton is asking for $263.4 billion in military spending for fiscal 1994, which begins Oct. 1. The Senate bill would provide $261.6 billion, a cut of only $1.8 billion. The House measure would authorize $262.8 billion, or a relatively scant $571 million less.

Congressional strategists said lawmakers' reluctance to reduce military spending further reflects two factors--uncertainty about potential risks in such trouble spots as Bosnia and Somalia, and fear that cutting too rapidly would hurt the economy.

Critics of the Administration have warned that additional reductions could erode the nation's military preparedness. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has served notice that he will block any move by liberals to slash spending further.

There had been some expectations earlier that the defense bill might become mired in controversy over the debate on whether to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military. But that debate now seems likely to be confined merely to token efforts.

The House and Senate bills contain provisions backed by conservatives to write into law the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that Clinton announced in July, which would halt aggressive steps to root out homosexuals in the military but would still restrict their behavior.

The House began wending its way through more than 50 proposed amendments Wednesday, defeating a series of provisions that would have cut or increased funding for the Pentagon's remaining ballistic missile development programs.

The Senate, meanwhile, remained in session late into the evening considering a proposal by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to require the Administration to conduct another review of its decision to keep U.S. troops in Somalia.

Some major provisions that appear in both versions of the bill would:

* Provide a 2.2% pay raise for uniformed military personnel, effective next Jan. 1. Clinton had proposed freezing the pay of military and civilian workers.

* End the statutory ban against women serving aboard combat vessels and allow the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force more latitude to assign women to existing combat units. Clinton has endorsed such a policy.

* Fully fund most major military hardware programs except for ballistic missile defenses, which were reduced to $3.2 billion, down from the $3.75 billion requested by the Administration.

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