WASHINGTON – The Senate gave overwhelming approval Thursday to a $416 billion Pentagon spending bill for next year, including a $25 billion down payment for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and extra money for adding 20,000 Army troops and equipment like Chinook helicopters (search).
The 98-0 vote underscores the election-year consensus between President Bush and both parties in Congress to increase the military's budget at a time when two wars and efforts against terrorism are taxing Pentagon resources.
"It is a symbol to the country that we're able to come together in times of crisis," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the chief author.
Before passage, the Senate added aid for Sudan (search), assistance to New York and Boston for hosting this summer's political conventions, and about two dozen projects for lawmakers' home states. Those included money to buy three airplanes for a college in Montana.
The overall bill provides $1.6 billion less than what Bush requested. Included is $76.5 billion — $1.8 billion more than he wanted — for purchasing weapons and other equipment, plus money for a 3.5 percent military pay raise.
Bush proposed having the power to move the entire $25 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan to whatever war-related accounts he chose.
The Senate bill would give him flexibility to move $2.5 billion of the $25 billion. The rest would be assigned to specific accounts, though some — such as $17.5 billion for operations and maintenance — are still broad enough to give the president much leeway.
The legislation closely tracks a defense bill the Senate approved Wednesday night that lays out next year's government-wide defense programs, which are expected to total $447 billion. That bill provided no actual money, but Thursday's does.
Unlike the bill the Senate was considering Thursday, the government-wide defense measure included the Energy Department's nuclear weapons program and military construction projects.
The bill is also similar to a $417 billion defense spending bill the House approved on Tuesday.
Congressional leaders hope to complete a compromise version of the measure and send it to Bush before lawmakers begin a six-week summer break in late July.
The bill moved through the Senate so abruptly that reporters were not given the customary report describing the measure. The White House wrote a letter saying it "has not had sufficient time to review" the bill — but supported it anyway.
The $25 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan will become available as soon as the measure becomes law, reflecting congressional concerns the Pentagon might need those funds soon.
As the Senate sped through amendments, it also used a voice vote to add $95 million for victims of warfare and famine in Sudan and Chad, in an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and others. But by 54-44, it rejected an effort by Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., to provide $118 million more.
Senators voted 89-9 for nonbinding language sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., urging Bush to request in his next budget the money he thinks he might need for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush's 2005 budget, released in February, drew Democratic criticism for excluding war costs.
By voice vote, the Senate added $50 million divided evenly between Boston and New York City for their security costs at this summer's Democratic and GOP conventions, respectively.
Like most of the 13 annual spending bills Congress approves, the defense measure — the largest of all — carries numerous projects for lawmakers' home districts.
In other voice votes, the Senate approved about two dozen such projects, carving out millions of dollars for such items. Included were:
— $880,000, sponsored by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., for an Air Force grant to be awarded to Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont., for the purchase of three Piper aircraft and an aircraft simulator for training.
— Up to $2 million, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., for aircrew bladder relief devices. Such a product has been developed by a Vermont company.
— Up to $3 million, sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., for developing portable equipment for helping soldiers with severe lung wounds — one of which is being developed at the University of Pittsburgh.