The House Monday begins what could be the shortest defense authorization bill debate in nearly a decade, taking up a $291 billion measure so devoid of controversy that it could whisk through in as little as two days.

A prime feature of the bill - one not subject to any serious controversy following the role of women in the Persian Gulf war - is a portion that allows the Air Force and Navy to waive a law barring women from flying combat missions in wartime.The measure lays out the broad program authority for Pentagon programs in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, and a later appropriations bill will put up the cash to pay the bills.

Representing the second defense bill to follow an agreed-upon blueprint of declining defense spending as the Pentagon seeks to shrink by about 25 percent through mid-decade, the bill compares with the $288 billion for the current fiscal year, up slightly but not enough to keep it from losing ground to inflation.

The largest of the disputes will be the size and composition of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" missile defense research effort.

The Pentagon asked for about $5.2 billion, including funds for a newly included program of improving defenses against the shortest range missiles used on the battlefield, a follow-up to the successes demonstrated by the Patriot missile against Iraqi Scuds during the Persian Gulf war.


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Cheney may seek veto

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Saturday he would recommend that President Bush veto the proposed defense budget unless it contains money for additional Stealth bombers and for the "Star Wars" anti-missile system.

Cheney, speaking on CNN's Evans and Novak program, said he was puzzled by lawmakers' reluctance to make money available for the space-based anti-missile defenses, especially in light of the Scud missile threat from Iraq during the Persian Gulf war.