House passes $690 billion defense bill

May 26, 2011

The House passed overwhelmingly Thursday a $690 billion defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2012 that fully funds operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and limits President Obama’s authority to deal with Guantanamo detainees and to reduce the number of nuclear weapons.

The White House has warned that those latter provisions could prompt a veto if they were included in the final version of the bill. That prospect remains unclear since the Senate version of the measure has yet to be put together by its Armed Services Committee.

The House measure is $1.1 billion above what the Obama administration originally requested for defense spending for next year. All of that increase is going toward overseas operations. However, lawmakers showed in votes Thursday that they have growing concerns about continuing operations in Afghanistan and U.S. fighting in Libya.

An amendment calling for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan and a fixed timetable for turning military operations over to the Kabul government narrowly went down to defeat, 204 to 215. Last year a similar amendment went down 162 to 260.

At the same time, the House voted 416 to 5 to prohibit the use of U.S. funds to put ground troops in Libya except to rescue an American, such as a downed pilot or a crew member who had bailed out of an aircraft. The prohibition covered the introduction of even contracted American personnel. This limitation reflected growing concern among some members that Obama has ignored the War Powers Act in failing to seek direct congressional authorization for U.S. participation in the fight against Moammar Gaddafi.

The legislation includes a 1.6 percent pay increase for service personnel and, though it increases the amount working-age military retirees will have to pay for their Tricare health care, it would result in lower future fee increases than Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was seeking.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) said the bill honors “the service of our military personnel, veterans and their families,” pointing particularly to the pay boost and its protection of Tricare “from steep increases in the future.”

The measure also retains several sections that the Office of Management and Budget warned earlier this week would cause “the president’s senior advisers . . . [to] recommend a veto.”

One would limit the president on cutting nuclear weapons deployed or retired from the stockpile, while another would continue to bar the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the United States and prevent them from being prosecuted in courts in this country.

The bill would open the way for reviving competition for the engine of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Gates has halted.

And another provision considered objectionable by the White House would re-characterize the fight against terrorism in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden. It gives expanded authority to use military force against “al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces.” It also would authorize detaining “certain belligerents until the termination of hostilities.”

The OMB said: “At a minimum this is an issue that merits more extensive consideration.”

The bill also contains sections that create new uncertainty about implementation of the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as well as prohibit same-sex marriages on military facilities.

More than 150 amendments to the defense bill had been approved for debate, and in a rush to get the bill passed, McKeon packaged dozens of them together for passage by voice vote.

One calls for a $200 million limitation on the amount spent each year on military bands. The services spent almost double that amount last year, with the Army alone having more than 4,000 musicians in units around the world.

Another designates the chief of the National Guard as a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 2009, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, testified against such a step, saying the Guard is already represented through the separate service chiefs.

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