House Approves $368.7 Billion Defense Spending Bill

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The House on Tuesday approved a $368.7 billion defense spending bill that lawmakers said would support the Pentagon's goal of developing a more mobile, high-tech fighting force while preserving older weapons systems that proved their value in the Iraq war.

The bill for the year beginning Oct. 1 represents an increase of about 1.3 percent over the amount approved for this fiscal year -- not taking into account a $62.4 billion midyear spending bill that paid for the war in Iraq. The 2004 bill doesn't include the costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which probably will be financed by another spending bill.

The bill was approved 399-19.

A similar bill was approved with bipartisan support Tuesday by the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee (search). Most details of that bill will be withheld until the full committee considers it Wednesday, but senators described it as supporting President Bush's defense spending priorities.

Both bills are about $3 billion below Bush's request. Lawmakers are expected eventually to make up this gap this year.

The House Appropriations defense subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said the House bill "reflects very much the direction of the commander in chief as well as the Department of Defense regarding the war on terrorism that we are pursuing in the Middle East at this point but also recognizing its great threat around the world."

Those priorities include Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's desire to transform the military into a sophisticated, lighter force able to mobilize quickly in response to crises around the world.

But the House Appropriations Committee, in a report accompanying the bill, warned against cutting existing programs too severely to pay for new ones.

"Accelerating transformation by reducing current force structure to pay for future systems may undermine the readiness and capabilities of the forces we rely on today," it said.

The House bill denies some money for new programs in favor of older ones. It includes $458 million not sought by the Bush administration for 144 upgraded Bradley fighting vehicles, 43 Abrams tanks and other equipment to modernize the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

The House included $11.5 billion for building ships, a $2.4 billion increase, including one Virginia-class submarine, the Navy's most advanced attack submarine. It rejected an administration request for authorization to buy seven of the submarines through 2008. Lawmakers have expressed frustration over the submarines' rising costs and delays. The submarines are being built by Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corp. and Newport News Shipbuilding (search).

The Senate subcommittee's bill would authorize five submarines through 2008, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. It does not include heavy equipment for the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment.

The subcommittee also would provide the $9.1 billion sought by the Bush administration for missile defense. The House bill included $8.9 billion.

The House also cuts $65 million in funding for the LHA amphibious assault ship replacement program, which the Senate bill includes.

Both the House and Senate bills would cut $161 million from the administration's request for $3.7 billion for F/A-22 Raptor fighters for the Air Force. The long-delayed fighters have been plagued by cost overruns and software problems.

A Republican lawmaker, Rep. John Hostettler of Indiana, sought to include an amendment denying money for a round of base closings scheduled for 2005. The White House would have certainly opposed that amendment, and it was defeated 358-57.

The Pentagon says the billions of dollars that could be saved by closing unnecessary bases could pay for vital defense programs. Many lawmakers fear, however, that closing the bases could devastate their communities economically.

Though the defense bill accounts for about one-sixth of federal spending, it has generated little debate. After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, lawmakers have been reluctant to deny the Pentagon the equipment it says it needs to defend the country.

But Rep. Dennis Kucinich (search), D-Ohio, an anti-war Democratic presidential candidate, said the bill does little to make America safer. He wants money shifted to improve education and strengthen homeland defense.

"The only thing this Congress will take care of today are the profit-gouging defense contractors," he said.

Separately, a House panel approved $27.1 billion for the nation's nuclear weapons and water and energy projects for next year. The Senate has yet to write its energy-water bill.

The bill would provide more than Bush wanted for nuclear waste disposal and energy research. It trims Bush's proposal for securing the nuclear stockpiles of Russia and other countries in what lawmakers called a protest over inefficiency, and cuts his request for maintaining the U.S. nuclear inventory.

"We have a Cold War footprint," said Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, complaining about the number of U.S. nuclear weapons.

The bill includes $765 million to step up work on the Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository for nuclear waste -- $174 million more than Bush requested. There is also $4.5 billion for local water projects prized by lawmakers -- $288 million more than Bush sought.