WASHINGTON – House lawmakers on Friday passed a $643 billion defense budget draft, setting the stage for a lengthy fiscal fight with the Senate and White House over the military’s future missions and funding.
The three-day debate featured heated arguments over the war in Afghanistan, potential base closings, missile defense plans and the country’s security and non-military spending priorities.
Lawmakers rejected amendments to rapidly withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and to end the indefinite detention for terrorism suspects, both largely along party lines. But despite strong Democratic opposition to many provisions, the full measure was approved by a 299-120 vote, with support from both parties.
The plan presumes Congress will find a compromise on billions more in defense cuts by the end of the year, a contentious issue that many lawmakers believe won’t be seriously discussed until after the November elections.
Under plans approved by Congress last year, about $500 billion would be sliced from Pentagon funds over the next decade to help reduce the national deficit. House Republicans have pushed to shift those cuts to non-military programs, but Democrats and President Barack Obama have opposed that idea.
The House defense bill would set aside roughly $554 billion for the Defense Department’s fiscal 2013 base budget and another $89 billion for Afghanistan and other overseas contingency operations.
The total price tag is almost $4 billion more than the president’s defense budget request and about $8 billion more than the cap set on defense spending set by Congress last year, drawing criticism from Democrats and Pentagon officials.
Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta chastised the House for proposing a bloated defense bill, stating that “every dollar that is added [to the president’s plan] will have to be offset by cuts in national security.”
But House Republicans noted that their military spending plan is actually down more than $46 billion from last year’s proposed defense budget, and the increase from the White House plan repairs serious gaps left in the military’s funding. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon called Panetta’s comments irresponsible and inaccurate, insisting that the Republican proposal presents a safer defense strategy than the White House’s underfunded measure.
The authorization bill calls for a 1.7 percent pay increase for troops starting in January, creates new protections for victims of sexual assault and bars the Defense Department from considering another round of base closures next year.
It includes increases in health care premiums for military retirees and restrictions on performing same-sex weddings at military bases. It ignored Pentagon requests to retire a host of ships and aircraft.
The White House has already threatened a veto of the measure, citing the overall costs and a lengthy list of objectionable amendments.
The Democrat-controlled Senate is expected to begin debate on its version of the authorization bill next week. The full Senate is expected to approve the measure early this summer, but a compromise budget bill isn’t expected to reach the president until late this year.