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House Passes $355-Billion Defense Spending Measure

Budget: The bill gives President Bush most of what he requested after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It garners bipartisan support.

October 11, 2002|From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — The House overwhelmingly approved on Thursday a compromise $355.4-billion defense bill brimming with money for new destroyers, helicopters and missiles and granting President Bush most of the Pentagon buildup he requested following last year's terrorist attacks.

While the day's spotlight shone on the congressional debate over authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq, the massive defense spending package--one-sixth of the entire federal budget--underlined the bipartisan consensus behind beefing up the military. Quick Senate approval also was expected, and White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush looks forward to signing the measure into law because it will "ensure that we provide our troops in the field with the resources they need to fight terrorism and defend freedom."

The bill's 409-14 passage, less than four weeks before congressional elections, also reflected a desire by Democrats to head off campaign-season accusations by Bush that they had delayed a measure urgently needed in the U.S. effort against terrorism. Most of Congress' budget work has been stalled because Bush wants to spend less than Democrats and even some Republicans want.

The bill's popularity also was a tribute to the billions it would spend from coast to coast for weapons and other equipment. Included is $3.3 billion for 15 Air Force C-17 transport aircraft--$586 million more than Bush requested--which the Boeing Co. has been building in Long Beach, and $270 million for 19 Army Black Hawk helicopters--seven more than Bush sought--built by the Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. of Stratford, Conn.

As lawmakers sorted through a pile of legislation in hopes of recessing soon for the elections, the House approved a $10.5-billion military construction bill, 419-0.

By 272-144, the House also approved a bill keeping federal agencies open for another week, a measure necessitated by the spending battle between Bush and Congress.

And seeking to avoid a repeat of the disputed 2000 presidential contest, the House passed a measure to implement one of the biggest upgrades ever to the country's election system. On a vote of 357 to 48, the measure was sent to the Senate.

Hailed as the first major civil rights legislation of the 21st century, the $3.9-billion measure would help states replace antiquated voting machines, create statewide computerized registration systems, improve access to the voting booth for the disabled and adopt new anti-fraud provisions.

"The modernization of this system will ensure that each voter who wants to vote is given that opportunity while ensuring that each vote is counted only once," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican.

The measure would require states to comply with a number of new federal election standards, such as permitting people to check ballots and correct errors before their votes are counted and defining what constitutes a vote on various machines.

For now, all congressional action was colored by the Nov. 5 elections, when control of the House and Senate for the next two years will be decided.

Hoping to focus voters on issues that could help Democrats, the party's leaders invited press coverage of a forum they were staging today on retirement security, corporate responsibility and whether the economy is on the right track.

To counter that, House Republicans were preparing a tax-cut package that includes bigger breaks for stock market losses and for people trying to rebuild depleted individual retirement accounts and 401(k) plans.

"For the next four weeks there's going to be a lot of debate about the economy," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) told reporters. "Once we get this question of Iraq behind us, I think the American people are going to focus even more."

The defense bill, for the federal budget year that started Oct. 1, represents an increase of $34 billion, or 11%, over last year. Bush sought $367 billion but ran into bipartisan distaste for his proposal for a $10-billion fund he could tap without congressional input for combating terrorists over- seas.

From weapons procurement and research to the costs of training troops, virtually every category of Pentagon spending is being beefed up. Included in the bill is money for a 4.1% pay raise for military personnel, for two more AEGIS destroyers and a new attack submarine, and nearly all of the $7.4 billion Bush requested to continue developing a national missile defense system.

Following a deal struck earlier this year, the bill would follow Bush's lead and scuttle the Army's high-technology Crusader artillery program and provide $369 million to develop alternatives.

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