House presses ahead to complete $649B defense bill

By Donna Cassata

Associated Press

Published: Friday, July 8 2011 11:00 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken on a government-organized tour, children sit in front of a picture of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi before a group wedding party held for 25 couples in support of Moammar Gadhafi at his Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli, Libya, Thursday, July 7, 2011. NATO denied a Libyan government charge Thursday that the alliance is intentionally using its airstrikes to assist rebel advances, saying it is sticking to its mandate to protect civilians.

Tara Todras-Whitehill, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — The House on Friday overwhelmingly passed a $649 billion defense spending bill that boosts the Pentagon budget by $17 billion and covers the costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The strong bipartisan vote was 336-87 and reflected lawmakers' intent to ensure national security, preserve defense jobs across the nation and avoid deep cuts while the country is at war.

While House Republican leaders slashed billions from all other government agencies, the Defense Department is the only one that will see a double-digit increase in its budget beginning Oct. 1.

Amid negotiations to cut spending and raise the nation's borrowing limit, the House rejected several amendments to cut the Pentagon budget, including a measure by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., to halve the bill's increase in defense spending.

"We are at a time of austerity. We are at a time when the important programs, valid programs, are being cut back," Frank said.

Scoffing at the suggestion that "everything is on the table" in budget negotiations between the Obama administration and congressional leaders, Frank said, "The military budget is not on the table. The military is at the table, and it is eating everybody else's lunch."

Still, the overall bill is $9 billion less than President Barack Obama sought. The White House has threatened a veto, citing limits on the president's authority to transfer detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and money for defense programs it didn't want.

The measure includes $119 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The House also voted to slow repeal of the policy allowing gays to serve openly in the military, backing an amendment to block funds for the training manual for the Chaplain Corps on ending the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., sponsor of the amendment, said its purpose was to prohibit chaplains from performing same-sex marriages on Navy bases regardless of a state's law. The House approved the measure 236-184.

The overall bill must be reconciled with a still-to-be-completed Senate version.

The final vote came after the House turned back an amendment by Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio that would have barred funds for the U.S. operation against Libya. The vote was 251-169.

The House has sent mixed signals on Obama's military action against Libya, voting to prohibit weapons and training to rebels looking to oust Moammar Gadhafi but stopping short of trying to cut off money for American participation in the NATO-led mission.

In a series of votes Thursday, Republicans and Democrats expressed their dissatisfaction with the Libya operation, now in its fourth month with no end in sight and waning support from some nations in the international coalition. The House voted to bar military aid to the rebels but moments later rejected efforts to prevent funding for the limited U.S. mission.

The votes mirrored the contradictory actions of the House last month, when lawmakers refused to approve the operation but declined to cut off the money.

The congressional unrest over Libya stems from a stalemated civil war and Obama's contention that he didn't need congressional authorization to engage in another war on top of Afghanistan and Iraq because Libya fighting isn't full-blown hostilities. Among war-weary NATO allies, Italy announced that it was reducing its participation in the campaign by removing an aircraft carrier from the region and pulling thousands of troops home.

"Libya did not attack us. Libya did not attack NATO," Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said. "However much we detest Mr. Gadhafi and his regime, we have no reason to be at war."

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