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House votes to shield military from looming budget cuts

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Dec. 7, 2011: House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., second from right, accompanied by fellow committee members, gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)

The House of Representative has voted to change the terms of last summer's debt-ceiling deal, in order to protect the Pentagon from some automatic spending cuts. 

In a 218-199 vote mostly along party lines, the House approved a Republican-backed bill which would prevent a $55 billion Pentagon cut that defense hawks warn would force troop cuts and military base closings, as well as an 8 percent cut to domestic agency operating budgets. 

The bill achieves that by making cuts to domestic programs like food stamps and health care. The replacement cuts include blocking illegal immigrants from claiming refundable child tax credits and cutting almost 2 million people off of food stamps. 

The vote Thursday is largely symbolic, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said the bill will not pass his chamber unless tax increases are also part of the mix. The White House has also issued a veto threat. 

Still, House Republicans were addressing widespread concerns about the impact the automatic spending cuts will have on the military. 

The Pentagon faces more than $500 billion in budget cuts over the next decade, thanks to the failure of the so-called "supercommittee" last fall to agree on a deficit-reducing plan. Non-military portions of the budget also face massive cuts -- this punishment was baked into the law, which allowed for the debt-ceiling increase last summer, as an incentive for Democrats and Republicans to strike their own deal, since the fallback cuts were so disagreeable to both sides. 

But even with this punishment hanging over their heads, lawmakers still could not reach a compromise. 

On the heels of that negotiation collapse, House Republicans pushed their proposal Thursday to shift around a portion of those planned cuts -- largely sparing the military from the full brunt of the impact. 

The GOP proposal is estimated to be worth about $242 billion in savings over 10 years -- to do that, it cuts into entitlements spending as well as other areas, something Democrats oppose. The Pentagon would not be entirely spared from cuts, but the GOP plan effectively takes the budget ax off cruise control and puts somebody in the driver's seat. 

"It would decimate our military at the very moment when our men and women are over fighting in Afghanistan," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, said of the original plan. "So what we're saying is we don't want to lose the savings. We just need to cut the government spending in other places of government." 

Lawmakers in both parties want to avoid the automatic cuts, but Democrats are strongly opposed to the GOP approach, which slices more than $300 billion from domestic programs over the coming decade while preventing the Pentagon from absorbing a $55 billion blow to its budget next year. 

"They have a totally lopsided approach," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., accusing Republicans of protecting special interests at the expense of the poor. "The result is they whack everybody else." 

Fox News' Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.