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House panel OKs defense bill, delays gay service

Republican efforts to delay President Barack Obama's new policy allowing gays to serve openly in the military and limit his authority to slash the nation's nuclear arsenal face formidable opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Early Thursday morning, the House Armed Services Committee approved a broad, $553 billion defense bill that would provide a 1.6 percent increase in military pay, fund an array of aircraft, ships and submarines, slightly increase health care fees for working-age retirees and meet the Pentagon's request for an additional $118 billion to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The vote was 60-1, with Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., opposing the legislation.

The bill challenged the Democratic president on scores of issues, from building an extra fighter jet engine to his decision-making on the fate of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It struck at the heart of two of the major accomplishments of the last, Democratic-run Congress and the Obama administration — repeal of the 17-year-old ban on gays and a landmark U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty.

Democratic senators are unwilling to roll back their hard-fought efforts.

"I am fully confident that Congress will neither reverse nor delay the policy of ending discrimination in our armed forces against gay and lesbian service members and that policy will be implemented in the coming months," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Thursday.

In a series of contentious votes, the House panel added provisions that strike at repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The votes came even as Americans increasingly support an end to the ban, with polls finding three-quarters say openly gay men and women should be allowed to serve in the military.

The committee, on a 33-27 vote, adopted an amendment by Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., R-Calif., that would require all four service chiefs to certify that the change won't hurt troops' ability to fight. The repeal law only requires certification from the president, defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs chairman.

"I want them to sign off on the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,'" Hunter said of the military leaders, arguing that Obama never served in the military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, has never been in ground combat and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a political appointee. "I, and others in this room, have more combat experience than the folks who sign off on 'don't ask, don't tell.'"

That drew a rebuke from Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee.

"That's a dangerous thing to say, that they're not quite qualified to make military decisions," Smith said of Obama, Gates and Mullen. "The president decides to go to war, they decided to take out Osama bin Laden."

In fact, the service chiefs have told Congress they communicate frequently with Gates and Mullen, and their opinions on whether the policy would undercut readiness are carefully considered. Last month, in testifying to the House panel, the four service chiefs largely echoed Gates' assessment that repeal would have little impact on the military.

Obama signed the law reversing the ban in December. Final implementation would go into effect 60 days after the president and his senior defense advisers certify that lifting the ban wouldn't affect readiness. Military leaders say training should be completed by midsummer, setting the stage for certification.

Rep. Diane Davis, D-Calif., said the amendment "sends the wrong message in terms of credibility and trust" in the military leaders. She said she didn't expect the provisions to survive in the Senate.

Still, the committee approved a provision by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., that would prohibit the use of military facilities for same-sex marriage ceremonies and bar Defense Department employees from conducting such ceremonies. The vote was 38-23.

On Tuesday, the Navy abruptly reversed its decision that would have allowed chaplains to perform same-sex unions if the Pentagon certifies openly gay military service later this year.

The House panel on Wednesday also approved an amendment by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman for the purpose of military benefits, regulations and policy. The vote was 39-22.

The House will consider the bill the week of May 23, with lawmakers certain to revive many of the budget and political fights that marked the committee's 16 hours of sometimes rancorous debate.

Garamendi plans to push for accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Under his measure, the number of troops would be reduced by 90 percent by the end of 2013. He promised to take up the issue in the full House.

Obama is nearing a decision on the size and pace of U.S. troop withdrawals that he has promised will begin in July. War-weary lawmakers are pushing for deeper and faster reductions, citing both the killing of bin Laden and a U.S. military operation costing $10 billion a month.

Also certain to create a fight is a provision of the bill updating the law known as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. The provision states that the United States is engaged in armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban and associated forces, and the president can use military force against them or detain them until the termination of hostilities.

But the provision omits a reference to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and human rights groups, the ACLU and some liberal lawmakers contend that amounts to a declaration of war.

Committee Republicans said the provision reflects what the Justice Department has said.

The panel also voted to limit Obama's authority to reduce the nation's nuclear arsenal and implement a U.S.-Russia arms control treaty overwhelmingly ratified by the Senate in December.

Over the objections of the Defense Department and Democrats, the panel approved an amendment that would prohibit money to take nuclear weapons out of operation unless the administration provides a report to Congress on how it plans to modernize the remaining weapons. The panel also adopted an amendment that says the president may not change the target list or move weapons out of Europe until he reports to Congress. The votes were 35-26.

The New START treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April 2010, would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would establish a system for monitoring and verification. U.S. weapons inspections ended in 2009 with the expiration of a 1991 treaty. START stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

The provisions added by the House panel are unlikely to survive in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Still, they elicited a fierce and lengthy debate in the committee.

Provisions in the bill also limit Obama's authority to transfer terrorist suspects from Guantanamo to foreign countries. Consistent with recent legislation, the bill bars transfer of detainees to facilities in the United States, even for trial.

The legislation also would prohibit family members from visiting detainees at Guantanamo Bay by barring the Defense Department from spending any money on such visits. The provision was a pre-emptive move as the Pentagon is considering allowing family visits.

The bill takes a step toward reviving an extra engine for the next generation F-35 fighter plane despite objections from the administration and Gates that the engine is not needed.

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