WASHINGTON – The House Appropriations Committee unanimously agreed to spend $317.5 billion on defense Wednesday, a number that some members say is not enough in light of the new challenges the military must face.
"This is basically a peacetime defense bill, and we ain't at peace no more," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., chairman of the committee's defense panel.
The bill increases defense spending $19 billion over last year, a 6 percent increase, but the number is still $1.9 billion less than President Bush had requested.
Earlier this month, Bush reached agreement with Congress to hike government spending on all 13 annual appropriations bills to $686 billion, $25 billion more than was originally agreed. Of the extra money, $18.4 billion had been committed to the military.
The spending measure is one of 13 bills that Congress must pass to fund the government each year. So far, Congress has passed none of the 13 bills meant to fund fiscal year 2002, which began Oct. 1.
Under a separate bill, $10.5 billion is allocated for military construction spending. Other money for defense spending is also included in an energy appropriations bill that pays for security at American nuclear labs.
The defense appropriation provides $7.9 billion for missile defense — $400 million less than Bush sought but $2.7 billion more than was spent last year. Missile defense was made part of a new counterterrorism and weapons of mass destruction program that would also provide $894 million to speed implementation of the most recent Patriot theater missile defense system, whose forebearer was used against Scuds during the 1991 Gulf War.
The program would also give the defense secretary and CIA director a rapid-response capability for the war on terrorism and defense against such threats as chemical and biological attack.
Committee leaders said the bill could gain $20 billion or more for the war on terrorism before the full House votes on it. The money would come from a $40 billion emergency spending plan that Congress agreed to following terror attacks Sept.11 that launched the United States into a new war.
"We will provide whatever it takes to make sure our country ... is secure," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla., who said he anticipates the full House will vote next week.
Much of the $20 billion is not for the Defense Department, but would be included in the bill because "this is the last train out of the station for quite some time," Lewis said. If the House doesn't add specific measures now, the Senate would be able to act without House input, he added.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., who has a history of opposing defense bills, threw his support behind the bill, saying more than $20 billion is needed to help recover from the attacks. The committee's top Democrat, Obey said he would seek tens of billions of dollars more for investigative, health care and other agencies.
"This bill should be supported across the board," Obey said. "I'm not talking as a Democrat, I'm talking as an American."
The Bush administration's proposal for spending the $20 billion earmarks $6.4 billion for national security — including the Pentagon's war effort; $6.9 billion for homeland security, with $2.8 billion of that for upgrading the country's preparedness to deal with biological and chemical threats.
Regarding Bush's $20 billion spending request, Young said after the meeting: "I don't want to just reach out and grab a number."
Before the vote, in an unusual political twist, a senior Democrat said the Bush administration needs to pump up popular support for increased military spending.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the No. 2 Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, which controls the Pentagon's budget, said Bush has failed to build a solid case with the public for increasing defense spending as the United States fights terrorism.
"I think most of the people that voted for George Bush thought he was going to do something dramatic, like Ronald Reagan did, to improve America's capabilities. Thus far that has not happened," Dicks said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.