Midnight Vote Sends Defense Measure to Senate

The largest defense-spending hike in decades got overwhelming approval by the House of Representatives early Friday morning as it voted to support President Bush's wartime budget. 

The 359-58 vote sends the $383 billion bill to the Senate, where the fate of the Army's $11 billion Crusader program will be decided. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that he plans to abandon the 40-ton, fast-firing mobile howitzer program and use the money for more advanced technologies.

The House approved $475 million for the program and added non-binding language urging the Pentagon to keep developing the weapon, set to go into use in 2008, until a study on alternatives is completed. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Friday that his panel considered a similar amendment, but did not adopt it.  The committee will hear from Rumsfeld in a hearing next week to consider the decision.

"After the hearing, the committee will meet to determine whether we should offer a committee amendment at the time this bill is debated on the Senate floor. In the meantime, we authorize the funding that was requested in the 2003 budget for Crusader," he said.

The White House budget office said President Bush's advisers would recommend a veto if Congress limits "his ability to cancel this program." 

Support for the Crusader is widespread in Congress, where members are concerned about its impact on jobs and the economy in districts where the program is under development. 

"If we intend to have the best ground forces possible for force protection and future fire support, the answer is Crusader," said Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla. Production on the weapon is taking place in his state. 

Other provisions in the bill provide an almost 1 percent increase in benefits to all military personnel. The bill authorizes speeding up development of unmanned surveillance planes, and provides billions more for new stealth jets which could be used to fight terrorism. 

The bill calls for money for missile-defense spending, but the Senate is expected to re-allocate $800 million of that to higher priority areas, Levin said.

Despite Democratic attempts to remove the language, the bill does not change a measure, approved in committee last week, that allows the Pentagon exemptions from environmental regulations. 

Democrats also were defeated on amendments that would have prohibited the use of nuclear bombs to demolish deeply buried military facilities, barred spending on space-based national missile defense programs and allowed female troops posted overseas to obtain privately paid abortions at military hospitals. 

Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., was denied a vote on his proposal to repeal a new round of military base closures planned for 2005. Rumsfeld strongly supports base closings. 

A $10 billion war reserve fund proposed by the White House is contained in separate legislation. It will be used by the president for unspecified war needs without prior congressional approval. 

Sens. Levin and John Warner, R-Va., the ranking member on the Senate committee, said they will preserve the fund. The House wants to tap $3.7 billion of it to pay for expenses already incurred during the war in Afghanistan. 

With the new bill, Congress has boosted defense spending by 15 percent, or $50 billion, over 2002. 

House Armed Services Chairman Bob Stump, R-Ariz., said lawmakers were providing the largest real increase in Pentagon spending, in inflation-adjusted dollars, since 1966. 

"We're giving the president and our troops the tools they need to do their jobs," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.