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House panel OKs defense bill, delays gay service

By Donna Cassata

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 12 2011 12:25 p.m. MDT

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates addresses Marines during his final visit as defense secretary to Camp Lejeune, in Jacksonville, N.C. Thursday, May 12, 2011. Gates spoke to about 1,000 Marines based in North Carolina to thank them for their service as he prepares to leave office in June.

The Daily News, John Althouse, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Republican efforts to delay President Barack Obama's new policy allowing gays to serve openly in the military and limit his authority to slash the nation's nuclear arsenal face formidable opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Early Thursday morning, the House Armed Services Committee approved a broad, $553 billion defense bill that would provide a 1.6 percent increase in military pay, fund an array of aircraft, ships and submarines and meet the Pentagon's request for an additional $118 billion to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The vote was 60-1, with Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., opposing the legislation.

In a small victory for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the bill slightly increases health care fees for working-age military retirees, costs that have remained unchanged for 11 years.

Gates called the health care fees one of the "third-rail issues" as the Pentagon tries to rein in spending in the coming years along with military pay and base closings.

"We're proposing a radical change," he said dryly in a question-and-answer session with Marines during a visit to Camp Lejeune, N.C. "Two-and-a-half bucks a month."

The bill challenged the Democratic president on scores of issues, from building an extra fighter jet engine to his decision-making on the fate of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It struck at the heart of two of the major accomplishments of the last, Democratic-run Congress and the Obama administration — repeal of the 17-year-old ban on gays and a landmark U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty.

Democratic senators are unwilling to roll back their hard-fought efforts.

"I am fully confident that Congress will neither reverse nor delay the policy of ending discrimination in our armed forces against gay and lesbian service members and that policy will be implemented in the coming months," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Thursday.

In a series of contentious votes, the House panel added provisions that strike at repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The votes came even as Americans increasingly support an end to the ban, with polls finding three-quarters say openly gay men and women should be allowed to serve in the military.

The committee, on a 33-27 vote, adopted an amendment by Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., R-Calif., that would require all four service chiefs to certify that the change won't hurt troops' ability to fight. The repeal law only requires certification from the president, defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs chairman.

"I want them to sign off on the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,'" Hunter said of the military leaders, arguing that Obama never served in the military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, has never been in ground combat and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a political appointee. "I, and others in this room, have more combat experience than the folks who sign off on 'don't ask, don't tell.'"

That drew a rebuke from Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee.

"That's a dangerous thing to say, that they're not quite qualified to make military decisions," Smith said of Obama, Gates and Mullen. "The president decides to go to war, they decided to take out Osama bin Laden."

In fact, the service chiefs have told Congress they communicate frequently with Gates and Mullen, and their opinions on whether the policy would undercut readiness are carefully considered. Last month, in testifying to the House panel, the four service chiefs largely echoed Gates' assessment that repeal would have little impact on the military.

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