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Congress Marches to Bush's Tune on Defense Bills

Budget: Both chambers approve more money and personnel for the military. House, Senate clash on funding for antimissile program.

June 28, 2002|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The House approved $355 billion in defense spending Thursday as senators also moved to boost a broad range of programs in what would amount to the largest military funding increase in two decades.

As the House met President Bush's call to make defense spending its priority, the Senate voted 97 to 2 to authorize an overall military funding outline of $393.3 billion for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The measure would raise military pay 4.1% and fund new weapons and the next phase of the war on terrorism.

The Republican-dominated House and Democrat-controlled Senate clashed over abortion at overseas military clinics and compromised on the Crusader cannon and missile defense programs. And the No. 2 Pentagon official threatened to recommend a veto over red tape in the Senate's proposal for funding a missile defense system.

The House, which passed its version of the defense authorization bill last month, approved a separate bill Thursday, on a 413-18 vote, detailing spending. The Senate will not vote on specific appropriations until it completes work on the overall authorization.

The House spending plan, sponsored by Armed Services Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), would fully fund Bush's $7.6-billion proposal to create a system to defend the nation against long-range missile attacks. But Democratic leaders in the Senate, arguing that a foreign missile attack was less likely than a nuclear or chemical terrorist attack, successfully diverted $878 million from the program to shipbuilding and other programs.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has threatened to recommend a presidential veto, saying earlier this week that the proposed cuts would come in areas that are "so carefully crafted to damage the entire missile defense program that it has an effect that's vastly greater than the dollars involved." Senators then sought to avert that threat with an amendment by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) that restored $814 million that was freed by using more optimistic assumptions about inflation.

But the effort to bridge the gap on missile defense might not work. On Thursday, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told the House Armed Services Committee that Pentagon officials would advise Bush to veto the legislation if "burdensome statutory restrictions" in the Senate plan remained, including cuts that could force layoffs of hundreds or thousands of defense workers.

Congress typically alters about 18% of Bush's budget requests, causing rancor in the administration but keeping the broad outlines of his policy, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Alexandria, Va., public policy center.

"It is a peculiarity in this process that, although many items are changed, the defense posture usually ends up looking remarkably similar to what the administration requested," Thompson said.

Missile defense was by far the most divisive issue in the bill. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) successfully inserted a clause declaring that the Senate's priority for defense spending is counter-terrorism, not missile defense. The wording expresses the will of the Senate, but would not prevent Bush from spending money on missile defense.

An amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would require the Pentagon to complete successful tests before deploying a missile defense program. Amendments by Feinstein and GOP Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska would ban research into nuclear-armed interceptors for missile defense systems and compel the Pentagon to file classified and public reports on the systems' testing.

"There is a disturbing trend by the Missile Defense Agency, which goes well beyond concerns about security, to deny Congress and the American people basic information on how billions of dollars are being spent on missile defense," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). "This amendment requires Congress be kept informed on the performance of this very expensive system."

As the two chambers hash out missile defense, "there's bound to be a problem," Lewis said, adding that he expects compromises to result in a bill Bush will sign.

Lawmakers carefully crafted wording that would avert a threatened veto over the Pentagon's plan to kill the program to develop the Crusader cannon but keep the money and the technology. The 40-ton self-propelled howitzer, which opponents--including Rumsfeld--say does not fit the needs of a more mobile military, has strong support within the Army and in Congress.

Senators agreed to transfer $475.6 million in Crusader funding toward a lighter, more nimble successor cannon and directed the Pentagon to report how the money is used. The House spending measure cancels the program but sets aside $648 million for development of a replacement cannon and instructs the Pentagon to consult with the current contractor, United Defense Industries.

"It takes advantage of the $2 billion that's already been sunk into research" on the $11-billion program, Lewis said.

One measure sure to prompt a battle as House and Senate conferees debate the authorization bill is an amendment by Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) that would end a ban on abortion in overseas military hospitals for U.S. servicewomen.

Senators authorized $10 billion in costs related to the war on terrorism, but the House bill set aside the issue for a later vote.

The Senate also approved a proposal by Sens. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to hire an additional 12,000 service members, an increase of 1%.

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