WASHINGTON – The Senate passed a massive defense bill Wednesday that includes a pay raise for military personnel, despite Republican objections to billions of dollars in special projects lawmakers had added.
Seven weeks from Election Day, blocking the measure in wartime was not a political risk many senators were willing to take. The measure passed 88-8 after negotiations on amendments failed at midday.
Retiring Sen. John Warner of Virginia led the negotiating for Republicans who objected to the added projects, called earmarks. But he, too, said he could not cast a vote that implied disrespect for soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Warner said Democrats and Republicans alike objected to parts of the bill or proposed amendments.
The bill passed Wednesday because it earlier had attained the support of 61 senators — barely clearing the required 60-vote threshold — on a test vote. Following Warner's lead, a dozen Republicans voted to advance the measure, many of them in tough re-election bids.
Many more switched from opponents to supporters on the final vote. Of the eight who voted no, only five were Republicans: Sens. Wayne Allard of Colorado, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, David Vitter of Louisiana and Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Also voting no were Democratic Sens. Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, as well as Bernard Sanders, an Independent from Vermont.
The measure would permit $612.5 billion in spending for national defense programs in 2009, including $70 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also includes a 3.9 percent pay increase for military personnel, half a percentage point more than President Bush requested. A separate bill will have to be passed to actually appropriate the money.
The House passed its own version in May, which will have to be reconciled with the Senate version before the legislation is sent to the White House for Bush's signature.
Republican opponents objected to $5 billion in pet projects that Congress added to the bill. But proponents characterized "no" votes as showing disrespect for military personnel. On Election Day Nov. 4, voters will choose a new president, all 435 members of the House seats and a third of the 100-member Senate.
Those absent included three senators engaged in the presidential race: Republican nominee John McCain of Arizona and his Democratic rival, Barack Obama of Illinois, along with Obama's running mate, Joe Biden of Delaware.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was absent as he recovers from treatment for a brain tumor.