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MILITARY

Spy planes and Warthogs, Guantanamo and Navy carrier: Highlights of Congress' defense bills

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FILE - This March 14, 2014 file photo shows House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., joined at left by Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, listening to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington. The House defied the Pentagon on Thursday, overwhelmingly backing a $601 billion defense authorization bill that saves the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane, military bases and Navy cruisers despites warnings that it will undercut military readiness. McKeon rejected the suggestion that the measure was a "sop to parochial interests," arguing that the bill makes "the tough decisions that put the troops first." (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (The Associated Press)

The old refrain is, "The president proposes, but Congress disposes." Never a truer phrase has been uttered when it comes to the nation's military budget.

The Republican-controlled House on Thursday overwhelmingly backed a $601 billion defense authorization bill that rebuffs Pentagon plans to retire Cold War-era aircraft, take ships out of commission and increase out-of-pocket costs for personnel. The vote was 325-98.

The end of two wars means smaller defense budgets and the Pentagon had come up with its cost-saving plans. Republicans and Democrats buckled under election-year pressure and balked at the cuts, especially for programs in their home states that mean hundreds of thousands of jobs.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Armed Services Committee wrapped up work on its version of the defense bill. Republicans and Democrats were more receptive to several of the Pentagon proposals, agreeing with military leaders that saving some weapons would undercut readiness.

The Senate committee's bill costs $514 billion. Unlike the House, the panel didn't include a placeholder of $79.4 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations as it awaits word from the Obama administration on the exact cost.

Some highlights of the bills:

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HANDLING SUSPECTS AT GUANTANAMO

Congress repeatedly has thwarted President Barack Obama's efforts to close the U.S. naval installation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that currently houses 154 terror suspects. The Senate Armed Services Committee may have given Obama his first real chance to shutter the facility.

The committee's bill "created a path to close Guantanamo," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the panel's chairman. Under the proposal, the administration would have to present a comprehensive plan to Congress on how to close the facility and transfer terror suspects. Both houses of Congress could back a joint resolution of disapproval, but the president would have the opportunity to veto the resolution.

The House bill continues the prohibition on transferring terror suspects to maximum-security prisons in the United States.

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MILITARY SEXUAL ASSAULT

Both the House bill and the Senate committee measure take the same approach to dealing with the pervasive problem of sexual assault in the military.

The bills would change the military rules of evidence to prohibit an accused service member from using good military character as defense in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime.

The "good soldier defense" could encompass a defendant's military record of reliability, dependability, professionalism and reputation as an individual who could be counted on in war and peacetime.

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SHIPS AND PLANES

The House and the Senate panel halted any Navy effort to retire the nuclear-powered USS George Washington aircraft carrier, providing money to refuel the carrier. Levin argued that the carrier has 25 years left and it made no sense to move to mothball it.

Congress also spared the A-10 Warthog, the close-air support plane often described as ugly but invaluable. The House bill took $635 million from another account to save the plane. The Senate panel found millions in the budget to save the aircraft.

The House bill also spared the U-2 spy plane, the aircraft born in 1955 and famous for snooping on the Soviets. The Senate committee bill moves money from the Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft to the U-2 but doesn't prevent the military from retiring either one.

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RAISING THE PAY

The president proposed a 1 percent pay raise for military personnel. The House bill hikes it to 1.8 percent while the Senate committee agreed with Obama.

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