The House, ignoring a veto threat by the Bush administration, yesterday approved a $283 billion defense authorization bill that cuts deeply into two of the White House's most cherished strategic defense programs and asserts congressional control over foreign contributions to the U.S. deployment in the Persian Gulf.
Adopted on a 256 to 155 vote, the measure represents the first tentative House steps to adapt U.S. defense policy to a new era in which the Soviet threat is declining but the armed forces must still confront regional dangers, such as that posed by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait last month.
In response to the gulf crisis, the House yesterday agreed, 413 to 10, to shift about $978 million to support the huge troop deployment in Saudi Arabia. The package would provide additional pay and benefits to U.S. troops and bolster U.S. capabilities for sealift, airlift and defense against chemical and biological weapons.
But even with that change, the House-passed bill was not significantly altered in the wake of events in the gulf. The legislation, providing $24 billion less than President Bush requested, cuts by more than half the $4.7 billion sought by the White House for the Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense system and halts production of the B-2 "stealth" bomber after completion of just 15 of the 75 planes the Pentagon wanted.
"Iraq has not altered the course of this bill," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
Calling the legislation a "Saddam Hussein-Mikhail Gorbachev" defense budget, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said U.S.-Soviet cooperation in the gulf had convinced Congress the time had come to shift from a posture aimed at deterring a Soviet nuclear attack and land invasion of Europe toward a more flexible deterrent aimed at regional conflicts.
"The House today passed the first defense bill of the new, post-Cold War era," Aspin said.
But in endorsing the Armed Services panel's decision to halt production of the B-2 -- one of the few times the committee has voted to kill a major weapons system -- the House still faces a difficult conference with the Senate. Last month, the Senate approved the $4.5 billion sought by the Pentagon for the Northrop Corp.'s radar-evading bomber, enough to continue development and full procurement.
Also yesterday, the House refused a request by the Bush administration, contained in a Pentagon supplemental spending bill, for virtual control of the billions in expected allied contributions to Operation Desert Shield. The gulf amendment stipulates that such funds cannot be spent for any purposes not authorized by Congress.
Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney indicated during a closed meeting with members of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee that he was not going to insist on Pentagon control of the funds, sources said. They added that the matter now appears to be a dead issue.
Nevertheless, the panel decided to add language to a $1.89 billion Pentagon emergency supplemental spending measure that makes clear that gifts and monies from foreign governments may be used only after going through the usual congressional appropriations process.
In another hearing, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger indicated foreign contributions might be sought for other U.S. military efforts. "I would expect you will see this administration approaching foreign policy questions more and more in that direction," he told the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.
Eagleburger acknowledged that soliciting foreign financial help "is a kind of a new invention in the practice of diplomacy" that could create "some constitutional problems" if Congress did not retain control of the money.
Republicans yesterday warned that the deep cuts in SDI, the B-2 and troop strengths would lead to a presidential veto of the measure if it is not substantially changed in conference with the Senate. Rep. William L. Dickinson (R-Ala.), ranking GOP member of the Armed Services Committee, said Cheney had told him he would recommend that Bush veto the legislation.
"It's a bad bill," Dickinson said as the House completed debate. "It should be voted down and the president is going to veto it."
Staff writer Dan Morgan contributed to this report.