WASHINGTON – On the same day that President Barack Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage, the House Armed Services Committee backed measures prohibiting the practice on U.S. military bases.
The panel stepped into the gays in the military issue as it considered a sweeping, $642 billion defense bill for next year that buys new weapons, ships and aircraft, increases military pay by 1.7 percent and sets policies for the Pentagon. The committee worked through the day Wednesday and into the early morning Thursday on the legislation that adds billions of dollars to the president's budget request.
The committee fleshed out a blueprint for next year that calls for a base defense budget of $554 billion, including nuclear weapons spending, plus $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts. That compares with the administration's proposal of $551 billion, plus $88 billion.
Conservative Republicans still angry with the end to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military pressed two measures.
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"The president has repealed `don't ask, don't tell' and is using the military as props to promote his gay agenda," said Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., who is running for Senate.
The committee, on a vote of 37-24, backed an amendment that barred same-sex marriages or "marriage-like" ceremonies on military installations. The panel also endorsed an Akin amendment that said the services should accommodate the rights of conscience of members of the services and chaplains who are morally or religiously opposed to expressions of human sexuality.
In an odd exchange, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., questioned what would happen if a service member literally interpreted the Old Testament's Leviticus, which considers homosexuality an abomination. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., disputed her contention that was part of the Bible, saying it was the Old Testament.
House committee members did not specifically mention Obama's comments on gay marriage during the debate, but Democrats did characterize the GOP-backed amendments as discriminatory.
"Members of this committee are looking to turn back the clock and find new ways to discriminate against gay and lesbian service members," said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee. "These men and women serve with honor and distinction and this amendment sends a message that their service is not valued."
Earlier in the day, the committee backed construction of a missile defense site on the East Coast, rejecting Pentagon arguments that the facility is unnecessary and Democratic complaints that the nearly $5 billion project amounts to wasteful spending in a time of tight budgets.
In rancorous, lengthy debate, Republicans insisted that the site is necessary in the event that Iran or North Korea develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of attacking the East Coast. Democrats countered that throwing billions of dollars at a missile defense system plagued by failures made no sense, especially when the threat from the two nations was highly uncertain and many in Washington are demanding fiscal discipline.
This "would be spending up to $5 billion in the next three years on a missile defense system that doesn't work," said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., who offered an amendment to eliminate the project from the GOP-backed bill.
The chief proponent of constructing the site, Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, said, "We need to proceed with missile defense whether this president wants to or not."
On a largely party-line vote, the panel rejected Garamendi's effort, 33-28.
Since the mid-1980s, the Pentagon has spent nearly $150 billion on missile defense programs and envisions another $44 billion over the next five years. But it is not looking to construct a facility on the East Coast.
Gen. Charles Jacoby, the head of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, told Congress earlier this year, "Today's threats do not require an East Coast missile field, and we do not have plans to do so."
The progress of Iranian and North Korean programs remains unclear. The United States and its allies accuse Iran of using its nuclear program to develop atomic weapons. Iran insists it is producing nuclear energy. North Korea suffered a failed rocket launch last month when its Unha-3 rocket broke apart, raising questions about the immediate threat to the United States from a North Korean long-range missile.
Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O'Reilly, the head of the U.S. missile defense program, told Congress recently that North Korea lacks the testing for a capable system and has made little progress in its spaceflight program.
Nevertheless, the committee envisions construction of the site by the end of 2015, with the Pentagon deciding on a possible location. The bill includes $100 million to study three potential sites.
In a pre-emptive move, the committee backed an amendment by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., prohibiting any spending on implementing an international agreement on activities in space unless the pact has been ratified by the Senate or authorized by law.
The idea of another round of domestic base closings lost by a 44-18 vote. Lawmakers have challenged the savings from previous closings. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had proposed two rounds, but there's no enthusiasm in Congress for that during an election year.
The committee chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said the legislation represents a "modest" increase over the administration's proposal and "actively rebuilds the military within the constrained resources available to us."
Smith said he was pleased that the bill includes new conditions on providing aid to Pakistan. "It is imperative that Pakistan support our counterterrorism efforts," he said.
Election-year maneuvering over the size of the Pentagon budget is unfolding against a backdrop of worries by Republicans and Democrats that the nation's defenses will suffer if lawmakers cannot stave off more than $500 billion in mandatory military spending cuts scheduled to begin taking effect next year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.