$690 billion defense budget passes House despite veto threat
WASHINGTON — The House passed its version of the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill on Thursday, laying out plans for $690 billion defense plan next year and defying a presidential veto threat over rules limiting the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
The bill, which was approved by a 322-96 vote, includes $119 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a 1.6 percent pay raise for troops, and a host of military policy updates and family support initiatives.
It also includes a number of controversial provisions, including the new detainee transfer rules that have prompted a veto threat from President Barack Obama. House Republicans said that measure, which prohibits the transfer of detainees to the U.S. even for trial, is a necessary step to preserve national security.
Conservatives also included language requiring new rules for finalizing the looming “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and prohibiting same-sex marriages at military facilities. Neither provision is expected to be supported by the Senate, but both drew criticism from gay rights groups who called them an attempt to limit the rights of gays in the military.
The budget bill would also keep open an alternate engine possibility for the F-35 program, although no new money would be set aside for its development.
The alternate engine fight has been an ongoing spending battle for nearly a decade, with military officials calling the development unneeded and wasteful. But members of Congress who believe the second engine could result in long-term cost-savings have favored the program in the past, inserting millions into the budget over White House objections.
House lawmakers also included increases in Tricare fees for working-age retirees for the first time in 15 years, a provision defense leaders have called critical to helping curb health care spending for the department.
Under the plan, retirees not yet eligible for Medicare would see a $30-a-year fee increase for individual coverage and a $60 hike for family coverage. Co-pays for certain prescriptions would also rise by up to $3.
On the House floor, lawmakers approved a new requirement for mental health assessments for troops while they are deployed overseas, but more ambitious proposals to influence overseas operations failed to gain support.
An amendment by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan except for a small counterterrorism force failed by more than a two-to-one margin, and a similar plan from Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., to cut military end strength by 50,000 over the next five years failed by an even larger margin.
But the House did back an amendment preventing future defense funding from being used to deploy ground forces to Libya, a move which lawmakers said was prompted by the minimal consultation the White House had with Congress before committing U.S. forces to the no-fly zone there.
Before any of the provisions become law, the Senate must first pass its version of the authorization bill and reconcile differences with the House measure. Senate leaders are expected to take up debate on the defense budget next month, but a final measure is not expected to be sent to the White House before the end of summer.