House Panel Approves $29 Billion Defense Plan

A House committee reversed itself Wednesday and voted to give President Bush broad discretion to withhold money that Congress approved last fall for international family planning programs.

The Republican-dominated House Appropriations Committee handed the White House the victory as it approved a $29.4 billion package of military and anti-terrorism spending. The full House should vote next week on the measure, which covers the final months of the fiscal year that runs through September.

Bush asked for $27.1 billion for the overall package, the latest response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Democratic-led Senate has not yet written its version, but it is expected to exceed the House total by several billion dollars.

In a second win for Bush, the House panel also headed off language that would have prevented Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld from killing the planned Crusader artillery system.

Concerned that their amendment might fail, supporters of the $11 billion weapon settled for nonbinding language directing Rumsfeld to "take no action that would precipitously stop work" on the Crusader until Congress has voted on the program's fate. That, in effect, means the fight will resume later this year when lawmakers write the 2003 Pentagon spending bill.

By a near party-line 32-30 vote, the Appropriations panel approved a provision by Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., giving Bush until July 31 to decide whether to spend any of the $34 million for overseas family planning that lawmakers approved and Bush signed into law last December.

Bush has declined to spend any of the money, which was supposed to go to the United Nations Population Fund, which runs family planning programs in 140 countries. In withholding the funds, the administration has cited conservatives' accusations that the U.N. agency's activities in China abet forced abortions and involuntary sterilizations.

U.N. officials and their supporters deny the charge, and the U.N. program uses no U.S. funds in China. The Bush administration has sent a commission to China to search for evidence of forced family planning and U.N. links to it, and its report is expected soon after it returns in two weeks.

"This leaves the decision on the money up to the administration," Tiahrt said after the vote.

Wednesday's vote reversed a 32-31 tally by the committee last week approving language requiring Bush to release the $34 million by July 10 unless U.N. complicity in coerced abortions and sterilizations was found.

"There are people out there who desperately need this money," said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who sponsored the earlier provision with Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz.

Reps. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., and George Nethercutt, R-Wash., who missed last week's post-midnight vote on the Lowey-Kolbe amendment, both voted for the Tiahrt provision.

In the fight over the Crusader, supporters cited a May 13 memo from Undersecretary of Defense E.C. Aldridge to Army Secretary Thomas White telling him to stop spending money on the program "without prior consultation with me." So far, $2 billion has been spent to develop the weapon.

Critics have said the 40-ton Crusader is too big and slow for the Army's new emphasis on speed and flexibility. But supporters, led by Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., argued that it is better than existing alternatives, and many lawmakers who face contract cancellations in their districts have rallied behind it.

Last week, the House and the Senate Armed Services Committee approved defense bills containing $475 million for the Army keep developing the Crusader. The House added nonbinding language telling the Pentagon not to kill the program before producing a study on other options.

The House Appropriations panel's overall bill includes $15.8 billion for the Defense Department; $5.8 billion for domestic security, mostly for aviation and airports; and $5.5 billion to help New York recover from the Sept. 11 attacks.

It provides money for Pell grants for low-income students, overhaul of election systems, veterans benefits and foreign aid, including funds for Israel and the Palestinians.