WASHINGTON – President Bush signed into law Wednesday the biggest military spending increase since Ronald Reagan's administration — a $355.5 billion package giving the wartime Pentagon "every resource, every weapon and every tool they need."
Overwhelmingly approved by Congress, the measure contains a 4.1 percent salary increase for military personnel, $7.4 billion to keep developing a ballistic missile defense system and $72 billion for new weapons.
With the president contemplating war against Iraq, and U.S. troops involved in an anti-terror campaign across the globe, the law increases Pentagon spending in almost every area for the budget year that began Oct. 1 by a total of more than $34 billion, or 11 percent, over the previous year. It was the biggest increase in 20 years.
"Since September 11, Americans have been reminded that the safety of many depends on the courage and skill of a few," Bush told a Rose Garden audience filled with uniformed military personnel and lawmakers from both parties. "The bill today says America is determined and resolute to not only defend our freedom but to defend freedom around the world, that we're determined and resolute to answer the call to history and that we will defeat terror."
He also signed a $10.5 billion bill financing the building and upgrading of military installations in fiscal 2003.
While Congress gave Bush most of what he requested, lawmakers rejected his plea for a $10 billion fund he could tap without congressional input for combating terrorists overseas.
In a statement later in the day, Bush said he was disappointed by that decision and another to approve $2.7 billion less than he wanted for operations and maintenance programs. "Without these funds, we may be forced to reduce other important programs to finance the war on terrorism," Bush said.
There was a tinge of politics in the bill signing less than two weeks before elections that will decide which party controls Congress.
Bush took a veiled dig at the Democratic-controlled Senate for the failure to approve his request for a new Homeland Security Department. The president noted that all the armed forces were collected under a single federal roof when President Truman began revamping national security agencies after World War II.
"He reorganized our nation's defense structure to meet the security threats of a new era," Bush said. "Today, we are once again in a new era. ... We can't wait any longer. The threats to America are simply too great."
David Sirota, spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, responded that "the defense bill represents a bipartisan effort to prosecute the war on terror. It's only too bad the president has not displayed the same resolve in addressing the economy that he is running into the ground."
Bush ticked off the many tasks being placed at the military's feet: "bring justice to agents of terror ... liberate a captive people on the other side of the Earth ... prepare for conflict in Iraq if necessary ... serve in many places far from home and at great risk."
"We owe them every resource, every weapon and every tool they need to fulfill their missions," he said.
Bush also brought up a controversial item for which funding was deleted. Lawmakers reluctantly succumbed to his desire to scuttle the Army's Crusader artillery program.
"To have the willingness to say, 'This program works and this one doesn't,' is important," Bush said.