WASHINGTON — Money for the Pentagon and the nation's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is proving largely immune from the budget-cutting that's slamming other government agencies in the rush to bring down the deficit.
On a 336-87 vote Friday, the Republican-controlled House overwhelmingly backed a $649 billion defense spending bill that boosts the Defense Department budget by $17 billion. The strong bipartisan embrace of the measure came as White House and congressional negotiators face an Aug. 2 deadline on agreeing to trillions of dollars in federal spending cuts and raising the borrowing limit so the U.S. does not default on debt payments.
While House Republican leaders agreed to slash billions from the proposed budgets for other agencies, hitting food aid for low-income women, health research, energy efficiency and much more, the military budget is the only one that would see a double-digit increase in its account beginning Oct. 1
Concerns about undermining national security, cutting military dollars at a time of war and losing defense jobs back home trumped fiscal discipline in the House. Only 12 Republicans and 75 Democrats opposed the overall bill.
"In the midst of a serious discussion about our nation's debt crisis, House Republicans demonstrated responsible leadership that sets priorities and does not jeopardize our national security interests and our nation's ongoing military efforts," Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, said in a statement.
But Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, scoffed at the suggestion that "everything is on the table" in budget negotiations between the Obama administration and congressional leaders.
"The military budget is not on the table," he said. "The military is at the table, and it is eating everybody else's lunch."
The bill would provide $530 billion to the Pentagon and $119 billion to cover the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would provide a 1.6 percent increase in pay and buy various warships, aircraft and weapons, including a C-17 cargo plane that the Pentagon did not request but is good news for the Boeing production line in Long Beach, Calif.
During three days of debate, the House easily turned back several efforts to cut military spending, including amendments by Frank on the Democratic side and and tea party-backed freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.
In Congress this year, anti-war lawmakers and budget-conscious tea partyers have banded together to try to rein in military spending with some success.
"We are at a time of austerity," Frank said. "We are at a time when the important programs, valid programs, are being cut back."
Frank's amendment to cut $8.5 billion failed on a 244-181 vote Thursday.
"Many of us have gone around back home and told people how serious we are," Mulvaney said. "But how can we look them in the eye and tell them that we are serious about cutting spending and then come in and plus up the base defense budget?"
He added: "We have made hard decisions. We have made hard choices. The Defense Department needs to do exactly the same."
His amendment to set the Pentagon budget at current levels failed 290-135.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said there are "those who want to keep the military as strong as possible, so do I, but that doesn't mean you can't have an exceptionally strong military and cut the budget a little bit."
The overall bill is $9 billion less than President Barack Obama sought. The White House has threatened a veto, citing limits in the legislation on the president's authority to transfer detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and money for defense programs the administration didn't want.
The overall bill must be reconciled with a still-to-be-completed Senate version.
Yet not every House member thought spending was set high enough. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., opposed the bill for cutting too deeply.
"It is dangerous for Congress to begin hollowing out the United States military without fully realizing the national security risks this may entail," Forbes said in a statement.
The House also acted to slow the repeal of the policy allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces. Lawmakers voted to block money to train the Chaplain Corps on the practices it should use once the "don't ask, don't tell" policy ends.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., sponsor of the measure, said its purpose is to prohibit chaplains from performing same-sex marriages on military bases without regard to a state's law. The House approved the measure 236-184.Comment on this story
The practical effect of his effort was unclear as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to certify the end of the 17-year ban this summer, long before Congress completes a final defense spending bill.
The House also rejected 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.
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.