House passes defense spending bill

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The House on Thursday approved a $579 billion defense spending bill that reflected deep divisions on budget priorities and whether President Barack Obama needs new war powers to fight Islamic State militants.

The vote was 278 to 149 in favor of the bill, which drew stiff opposition from Democrats because it uses a war-fighting account to raise defense spending next year.

The measure gives President Barack Obama all the money he requested for defense, but did so by hiking the war-fighting account that is not subject to congressional spending caps by almost $40 billion. The president says he will veto spending bills that do not deal with the arbitrary spending limits and treat defense and non-defense expenditures equally.

Before the final vote, the House rejected an amendment to force lawmakers to vote by the end of March on new war powers to fight Islamic State militants.

The vote was 231-196 against the amendment, a vote that underscored the lack of political will in both the House and Senate on the bitterly disputed issue.

Introduced by Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, the measure would have required Congress to debate and vote on a new authorization for the use of military force by March 31. The amendment called for banning the use of funds in the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria unless Congress passed a new authorization.

"Ten months into an undeclared war against ISIS, Congress yet again dodged its responsibility to authorize the use of force," Schiff said after the vote. "While our pilots and special forces risk it all, Congress refuses to do its job. Congressional abdication of our responsibility to declare war, or to deny authorization for war, sets a terrible precedent and shifts war-making powers substantially and inexorably towards the executive" branch.

The defense bill itself enjoyed bipartisan backing when separated from the broader budget debate. The measure provides $8.4 billion for 65 next generation F-35 fighter aircraft, eight more than requested by the Pentagon, as well as $16.9 billion toward nine new Navy ships. It also prevents the retirement of the A-10 aircraft that protects ground troops. Men and women in uniform would get a 2.3 percent pay hike, a percentage point higher than requested by Obama.

The defense measure also boosts funding for procurement of National Guard equipment well above the Pentagon's request, drawing a protest from the administration, and would also block the transfer of Apache helicopters from the Army National Guard to the regular Army.

The companion Senate version of the bill easily advanced through the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday morning but faces a filibuster next week as Democrats seek to force Republicans to the negotiating table to boost domestic accounts.

The Senate bill contains even more money for F-35 fighters and shipbuilding and $330 million more than requested by the Pentagon for Israeli missile defense systems.