WASHINGTON – The House broke with the Bush administration over military base closings Thursday, disrupting the otherwise smooth passage of a massive defense bill aimed at securing the nation's military strength and winning the war in Iraq.
The House voted 259-162 to delay base closings (search), now set for next year, by two years. Within minutes. the White House issued a statement repeating that the defense secretary would recommend the president veto any bill that "weakens, delays or repeals" the base closing authority.
That was one of the few trouble spots before the House voted 391-34 to pass the $422 billion bill that authorizes defense programs for next year and adds $25 billion to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the first months. The new budget year begins in October.
There was relatively little debate on Iraq war policy, although earlier in the day President Bush traveled to Capitol Hill to rally Republicans on the war effort and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi criticized what she said was the president's "incompetence" in leading the nation to war.
The Democrats tried unsuccessfully to add language to the bill calling for a select congressional committee to investigate the prisoner abuse (search) issue in Iraq, but were defeated on a mainly partyline 224-202 vote.
The Senate, also debating its version of the defense bill, put off a final vote until after next week's Memorial Day recess.
There have been four previous rounds of base closings from 1988 and 1995, in each case over the objections of lawmakers concerned about the economic losses a closure would bring to their districts. The Pentagon argues that it still has more than 20 percent excess capacity and could save billions by closing unneeded facilities.
This time, opponents said the timing was bad because of the war on Iraq. The Pentagon, said Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., "is experiencing too many stresses and changes to make effective base closing decisions by May of 2005."
Under the "base realignment and closure," or BRAC, authority, the Pentagon draws up a list of excess capacity facilities and an independent commission picks which bases to close. Congress can accept or reject, but cannot change, that decision.
Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., offered the amendment to the defense bill that would have eliminated language delaying the 2005 round of closings by two years. He argued that the money saved from closing excess facilities could be used to modernize weapons systems and improve the military quality of life.
There's still a long way to go before President Bush has to decide whether to veto a record-breaking defense bill during wartime. The Senate, also considering its version of the authorization bill, earlier this week defeated, 49-47, an amendment to delay the closings, and the House provision could be removed when the two chambers negotiate a compromise version.
The White House issued another veto threat (search) over language in the House bill that would restrict Pentagon flexibility on "competitive sourcing," or contracting out to private companies some Pentagon jobs.
Otherwise there was widespread agreement on the bill that would approve increases in spending by almost $21 billion over the current budget year and emphasizes programs that improves the combat safety and financial well-being of troops.
The House bill, generally mirrored by the Senate version, includes an across-the-board 3.5 percent pay raise for military personnel and raises the hazardous pay for troops facing hostile fire from $150 to $225 a month. It also increases separation pay for those stationed overseas and improves health care programs for reservists.
To answer complaints that U.S. troops are not adequately protected from insurgent strikes, the bill contains more than $1 billion for better armored Humvees and add-on ballistic protection for vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It requires that the Army add 30,000 troops over the next three years and the Marines 9,000.
On Thursday the House defeated, 214-204, an amendment proposed by Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., and others that would have eliminated some $36.5 million in the bill for the Department of Energy to study a tactical nuclear weapon known as the "bunker buster."
Tauscher, argued that even the small nuclear weapon could cause massive collateral damage and "undermine decades of United States leadership" in stopping nuclear proliferation. Her proposal would have shifted the money to improving intelligence on deeply buried targets and improving conventional bunker-busting capabilities.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., won approval of an amendment that requires the Air Force to complete negotiations by March 1 next year on purchasing 80 Boeing 767 tankers to replace its aging fleet of 707 refueling tanker aircraft. The Air Force is also to lease 20 tankers from Boeing.