WASHINGTON – John Kerry (search) talks at length about his military service and his strong commitment to the nation's defense, but his Senate voting record on Pentagon spending is a combination of billion-dollar budgets approved and multimillion-dollar weapons opposed.
While the four-term Massachusetts senator has voted for nearly all of the Defense Department's spending and authorization bills since 1990 — as the overall total has crept closer to $400 billion — he has a long record of backing cuts to a number of military aircraft and missile-defense programs, an Associated Press analysis shows.
Leading Republicans, including party chairman Ed Gillespie (search), have seized on those votes to challenge Kerry, questioning the Democratic front-runner's record on national security.
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, argued Monday that the criticism of his votes amounts to an attack on his patriotism, questioning Republicans "who never fought in a war."
"They're somehow stronger on defense because they embrace every (weapons) system that was ever proposed," Kerry said. "That's not the measure of whether you're strong on defense."
The Bush-Cheney campaign said it is not questioning Kerry's patriotism or military service but rather his 19-year voting record in the Senate on military issues.
"Every time we have brought to light his voting record, he has responded by saying we have attacked his patriotism," Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot (search) said in a conference call with reporters. "We have praised repeatedly his patriotism."
The AP review of Kerry's votes in the Senate for more than a decade show that he often has backed or spearheaded targeted cuts in the Pentagon budget.
In the early 1990s, he voted to limit funding for the B-2 stealth bomber, which for years was plagued by cost overruns and had an eye-popping pricetag of $2 billion per plane. Under the direction of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, the Pentagon decided to buy fewer planes.
Kerry also voted to trim $3 billion to $4 billion from the defense bill in 1991-92. And in 1995 and 1996, he voted against both major defense spending and authorization bills.
"In the early stages of his (Senate career) he looked to squeeze the fat out of some of the big defense budgets," said Michael Meehan, senior Kerry campaign adviser. "We had enormous deficits and he would oppose big ticket weapons systems that were very expensive."
Kerry, a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at times argued for spending restraint and on other occasions was at odds with the first Bush administration, the Clinton White House and even some Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is responsible for the annual defense authorization bills.
In one 1990 debate, Kerry pushed for cuts in an anti-satellite weapons system, which had increased in cost from $73 million to a proposed $208 million in a single year. He said the funding should stay at the $73 million level, but that any savings should go to other defense programs.
In other instances, Kerry:
— Voted to eliminate the B-2 bomber program in 1992.
— Voted on several occasions to reduce funding for long-range missile defense programs. Derisively referred to as President Reagan's "Star Wars" program by some in Congress, missile defense was a constant source of controversy in the 1990s as lawmakers questioned the feasibility of a missile shield, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
Christine Iverson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said Kerry voted against spending on weapons systems that have proven valuable in the Persian Gulf, including the F-16 and F-15 fighter aircraft.
"There is a canyon of difference between his voting record in the Senate and his rhetoric on the campaign trail," Iverson said.
Meehan said that early on, officials questioned whether some of the aircraft, such as the B-2 bomber, would be successful in the Gulf wars.
"About a dozen years ago, when these programs were developed, that was not their reputation at the time," he said. "There were a lot of cost overruns and they were very expensive."
He said Kerry made his decisions based on the circumstances in each budget year.
The sharp exchange over Kerry's voting record and military service grew louder last weekend when the Bush campaign arranged a conference call for reporters with Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss as Kerry prepared to campaign in the state.
Chambliss predicted Kerry would have trouble in Georgia's Democratic primary next week because of a "history of voting to cut defense programs and cut defense systems."
Kerry, who won three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for his Navy service in Vietnam, responded, "No one is going to question my commitment to the defense of our nation."