WASHINGTON – The House on Friday passed legislation that authorizes the Pentagon to spend nearly $160 billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this budget year without major restrictions on the conduct of operations.
The 341-48 vote on the defense authorization bill came after House and Senate Democrats agreed to strip several provisions, including one that would have allowed gays to serve openly in the military and another that would have authorized abortions at overseas military facilities.
The provision that would have overturned the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was approved as a standalone bill in the House earlier this week and awaits a vote in the Senate.
The spending bill covers the 2011 budget year, which began Oct. 1. The Senate was expected to approve the measure as one of its final acts before adjourning this year.
Congress considers the defense authorization bill to be its primary chance to sway Pentagon policy. While it does not transfer money into Defense Department coffers, it does serve as a blueprint for the defense appropriations bill by authorizing spending levels.
This year's bill agreed to $725 billion in defense programs, including $158.7 billion for overseas combat.
Among its numerous provisions is a 1.4 percent pay raise for troops and a guarantee that children of service members can stay covered under the military's TRICARE health care program until they are 26 years of age.
The bill also would continue restrictions on the Defense Department's ability to close Guantanamo Bay, including prohibiting the transfer of detainees to the U.S.
This year's bill is mostly noteworthy for its broad bipartisan support during wartime. On Thursday, a White House review of war progress in Afghanistan suggested that tough combat would continue for years and that troop withdrawals in 2011 would probably be small.
Unlike during the height of the Iraq War when anti-war Democrats tried to use the legislation to force troops home, the House passed the defense bill Friday with almost no debate on Afghanistan.
Rep. Buck McKeon, who will chair the Armed Services Committee next year after Republicans take control of the House, said future defense authorization bills will focus solely on supporting the troops.
"They will no longer be used as a political football," said McKeon, R-Calif.
Other provisions in the bill include:
— Up to $75 million to train and equip Yemeni counterterrorism forces;
— $205 million for a program with Israel to develop its "Iron Dome" defense system;
— $11.6 billion for the development of the Afghan security forces, and $1.5 billion for Iraqi security forces.