House panel begins work on $553B defense budget

President Barack Obama's deficit-driven campaign to cut defense spending and the pace of withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan loom as divisive issues as a Republican-controlled House panel begins putting together the Pentagon's budget for next year.

The House Armed Services Committee was to meet Wednesday to consider legislation that would provide $553 billion for the Defense Department, an increase over the $513 billion the Pentagon is getting this year. The proposed budget adds $118 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama envisions cuts of $400 billion in defense over the next 12 years as the nation faces a fast-growing deficit. Lawmakers on the committee are resisting some of the cuts while imposing tougher scrutiny on the Pentagon's bookkeeping.

"Up until now, the Pentagon has taken a Band-Aid approach to acquisition and management problems and has done little to identify the root causes of the inefficiencies that exist within the defense enterprise," the panel's chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said.

The defense blueprint that McKeon unveiled Monday — and the committee will tackle Wednesday — takes a step toward reviving an extra engine for the next generation F-35 fighter plane despite objections from the administration and Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the engine is not needed.

The Pentagon recently notified General Electric/Rolls Royce that it had terminated its contract and work was stopped a month ago, saving $1 million a day. The company said last week it would spend its own money to build the engine.

The bill would force the Pentagon to reopen competition for the engine if defense officials have to ask Congress for more money so Pratt & Whitney can build the chosen design. The provision would apply to Pentagon spending in the next budget year.

Eighty House members — 41 Republicans and 39 Democrats — own stock in General Electric, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Days after U.S. commandos killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said he would offer an amendment to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Under his measure, the number of troops would be reduced by 90 percent by the end of 2013.

"With Osama bin Laden dead, the training camps destroyed and fewer than 100 al-Qaida left in Afghanistan, we've achieved most of our mission's critical goals," Garamendi said in a statement. "It's time we shifted away from fighting an internal civil war and toward focusing on al-Qaida like a laser wherever it takes root."

A growing number of war-weary lawmakers are calling for the United States to pull its troops out of Afghanistan, citing the cost of $10 billion a month and the death of bin Laden.

Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee have promised to challenge provisions of the bill that limit the administration's authority to transfer terrorist suspects from the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to foreign countries. Consistent with recent legislation, the bill bars transfer of detainees to facilities in the United States.

The bill would slightly raise health care fees for working-age military retirees in the next budget but cap future increases by linking them to cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. The rates have been unchanged for 11 years, and the defense bill accepts the administration call for a $2.50 per month increase for an individual and $5 for a family.

Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., R-Calif., will try to delay repeal of the ban on gays in military until all four service chiefs certify that the change won't hurt readiness or undermine the military. The repeal law, in effect since December, only requires certification from the president, defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.