The Senate last night approved President Bush's military spending blueprint for next year after a five-week struggle during which Republicans turned back Democrats' attempts to reshape it.
The 97 to 0 vote to approve the measure followed a 50 to 48 vote to defeat a proposal by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) directing the administration to report to Congress on progress in Iraq, including estimates of the number of U.S. troops who will be there at the end of next year. The Senate approved a Republican alternative requiring a report on other aspects of attempts to stabilize Iraq, but not troop estimates.
The Senate also rejected a proposal by Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) to guarantee annual increases in veterans' health benefits. The vote was 49 to 48 in favor of Daschle's proposal, but it needed 60 votes to pass because it violated budget limits.
The $447.2 billion defense authorization bill includes $25 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which may have to be augmented next year, and an increase of more than $20 billion over current levels for other expenditures. Included are record expenditures of about $70 billion for development of an array of planes, ships and weapons, surpassing even the buildup of the 1980s.
It includes a 3.5 percent military pay raise along with increases in other benefits, $10.2 billion for Bush's planned missile defense program and a go-ahead for further research on two new nuclear weapons: a low-yield "mini-nuke" and a high-yield "bunker buster" to destroy deep underground facilities.
In several votes over the past two weeks, Democrats attempted to slow what they regard as unduly hasty deployment of initial missile defenses -- the scaled-back version of President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" plan for a nuclear shield that Bush has made a centerpiece of his national security policy.
Although Republicans agreed to require operational tests next year, they balked at forcing them to be conducted by an independent testing office. They also refused to condition spending for new weaponry on any test results and rejected proposals to shift some of the funds to homeland security programs.
Democrats also failed to derail the new nuclear weapons, make war profiteering a crime and bar private contractors from interrogating war prisoners. But they succeeded in adding to the defense bill one of their major domestic priorities: legislation to toughen hate-crime laws by including gays for the first time.
The Senate-passed bill must be reconciled with a House version approved last month, a process that could prove difficult on several points. Both bills include the same framework reflecting Bush's priorities but include some politically charged differences over key details.
For instance, the House bill would delay the next round of military base closings from 2005 to 2007. The Senate's legislation would let the closures proceed as scheduled next year.
The House would permanently expand troop ranks by 39,000 -- 30,000 for the Army and 9,000 for the Marine Corps -- over the next three years. The Senate would mandate a 20,000 increase for the Army only next year. The administration opposes any mandatory increases, preferring authority to increase force levels at its discretion.
The House also included far more stringent "Buy American" rules for procurement of military materials than the Senate did. A fight over these rules delayed agreement on last year's defense bill for months, and the issue is bigger this year because of military needs and elections.