The House yesterday overwhelmingly approved a $447.2 billion defense bill that allows the Pentagon to boost the size of the armed forces by 39,000 over the next four years to ease pressure on combat units strained by commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The increase of 30,000 for the Army and 9,000 for the Marines, the first expansion since the end of the Cold War, ratifies a buildup already underway in the services. GOP officials said it will add $4.7 billion a year to Pentagon costs by 2007.
The "temporary" manpower increases would bring the active-duty strength of the Army to 512,000 troops by 2007, from its present 482,000, an increase of 6 percent. The House Armed Services Committee said this would help the Army achieve its goal of increasing the number of combat brigades from 33 to between 43 and 48. The Marines would grow from 175,000 to 184,000.
The annual defense authorization bill was approved by a vote of 391 to 34.
In a far more contentious election-year vote, the House defied a White House veto threat by preserving a provision that delays new closings of home-state military bases for two years.
The bill sets aside $76.2 billion for the procurement of missiles, aircraft, ships and weapons, and an additional $68 billion for military research, including work on a controversial nuclear weapon designed to bore deep underground to knock out enemy bunkers. It also allocates the $25 billion sought by the administration to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and for the global war on terrorism early next year.
The House bill gives the administration the flexibility it seeks in using most of the $25 billion but specifies the use of $3.4 billion for buying armored vehicles, unmanned drones and other equipment to protect troops in the field. Some of the $25 billion would also be earmarked for troop expansion.
A nonbinding resolution calling for the destruction of the prison where Iraqi detainees were abused by U.S. troops was added to the bill by a vote of 308 to 114. The measure, by Reps. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) and John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), would demolish the Abu Ghraib prison and build a modern detention facility in its place.
Senate efforts to pass a comparable bill bogged down this week. Differences between the two chambers ensure lengthy negotiations before Congress votes on a final compromise package.
More than in other recent years, the huge defense measure focuses on the physical safety of ground troops and the stresses caused by wartime disruptions on those in the military and their families.
"This is the year of the troops," said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) called the legislation a "soldier's bill."
It provides a 3.5 percent across-the-board military pay increase and more than doubles the allotment for hardship duty. It makes permanent extra pay for those facing "imminent danger" and gives reservists serving actively for more than a year up to $3,000 a month to replace lost civilian income.
The bill adds $704 million to the administration's request for armored Humvees manufactured in Ohio and Indiana, and it doubles the amount for armor kits for the Army's truck fleet.
Democrats, nonetheless, made clear this week that they believe Republicans are vulnerable to charges that the Bush administration sent soldiers to Iraq without adequate armor and protection, even as extended mobilizations were placing financial and personal stresses on thousands of their families back home.
Yesterday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) charged that President Bush had sent troops into battle "without Kevlar lining in their flak jackets and without armor for their vehicles."
House Democrats complained that GOP leaders had used procedures to prevent them from introducing dozens of amendments to the defense bill aimed at improving the lot of National Guard and reserve families and the security of troops in Iraq.
On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) outlined a series of Democratic amendments that he said would help reservists and members of the National Guard obtain health insurance, repay student loans and get help in emergencies. He said that "this country has not reciprocated" the sacrifices made by men and women called up for the Iraq conflict.
On the issue of base closings, however, party allegiances counted for little.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has argued that delays in closings would disrupt plans to transform and restructure the armed services. But 103 Republicans joined 155 Democrats and one independent to defeat an amendment that would have kept the base closings on track. The vote was 259 to 162.
"I can't believe he'd veto the defense bill over a two-year delay," said Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), who has led the fight for the delay.
In both houses and parties, sentiment to protect military installations -- and the tens of thousands of jobs that go with them -- is running strong. Privately, some Republicans grumbled about the presidential pressure in an election year.