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Defense bill aids troops, restricts contractors

December 15, 2007|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed a defense policy bill Friday that would offer more help to troops returning from combat and set conditions on contractors and pricey weapons programs.

The measure reflects the best Democrats could do this year on their national security agenda while holding such a slim majority. With Democrats powerless to overcome GOP objections in the Senate, the bill does not order troops home from Iraq, as party members would have liked.

The 90-3 vote follows House approval this week and sends the measure to President Bush to sign, which he is expected to do.

"Caring for our troops and their families must always be our top priority," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which helped write the bill.

The bill, which covers the 2008 budget year, authorizes $696 billion in military spending, including $189 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although it does not send money to the Pentagon, the bill is considered a crucial policy measure because it guides companion spending legislation and dictates the acquisition and management of weapons programs.

The bill would authorize a 3.5% pay raise for service members. It also would guarantee that combat veterans receive mental health evaluations within 30 days of their request and prohibit fee increases to the military's health care system.

Troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are guaranteed three more years of Veterans Affairs health care after being discharged. Now they have two.

The bill would authorize Bush to spend $10 billion for ballistic missile defense, about $331 million less than requested.

The bill also includes provisions intended to increase the oversight of contractors and the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan, requiring that private security contractors working in a war zone comply with military regulations and commanders' orders.

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