WASHINGTON The House passed a defense policy bill on Wednesday that would authorize $696 billion in military programs, including $189 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The measure, which covers the budget year that began Oct. 1, does not send money to the Pentagon. But it is considered a crucial policy measure because it guides companion spending legislation and dictates the acquisition and management of weapons programs.
The Senate intended to follow suit this week and send the bill to President Bush, who is expected to sign it. The House vote was 370-49.
"It's good for our troops, good for our families," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which wrote the bill. "It will help improve readiness for our armed forces and bring new oversight to the Department of Defense in areas where oversight was sorely needed in the past."
The legislation includes a 3.5 percent pay raise authorized for uniformed service personnel and a guarantee that combat veterans receive swift health evaluations. It also would block fee increases proposed as part of the military's Tricare health-care system.
The bill has several provisions intended to increase the oversight of contractors and the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan. More specifically, it would require that private security contractors working in a war zone comply with military regulations and orders issued by commanders.
It would establish an auditing system to oversee reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan that would be modeled after the special watchdog for Iraq reconstruction.
Final action on the bill comes as Democrats struggle for a way to pay for combat operations overseas without appearing to support Bush's policies in Iraq.
Senate Republicans are insisting that war money be added to a government-wide spending bill. Democrats were expected to agree, but the legislation stalled this week after Republicans objected to domestic spending added by the Democrats.
As the budget feud continues, the Pentagon is preparing to notify some civilian contractors that they will be laid off in February. The notices would arrive shortly before Christmas, per union contract rules that require the employees are given 60 days notice.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the situation was unprecedented.
"Not even in Vietnam, at the height of that conflict with the demonstrations in the street and so forth, did Congress not fund the war effort," he said. "We are really in a difficult situation and there are many, many people trying to figure out what the full impact will be."
A group of Washington-area House members, including Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Tom Davis, R-Va., counter that the layoff notices could be delayed until after Christmas, at which point the spending dispute would be resolved. They cited a new Dec. 13 report by the Congressional Research Service that found the Army could potentially keep combat operations afloat through the end of March.
But doing so would require the Army to slow down its expenditures considerably and defer depot maintenance work, CRS warned.
Moran and Davis said the alternatives were preferable because it would prevent crippling the military's civilian work force.
"We don't believe that federal employees should be used as bargaining chips," said Moran.
Additional time also could be bought if the military invokes the Feed and Forage Act, a mechanism dating to the Civil War. It would permit the Defense Department to buy clothing, food, fuel, medical supplies and other provisions in excess of its budget. The last time the law was invoked was after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Or, the CRS says, the Defense Department could take unprecedented measures, such as using the Navy and Air Force to pay the costs of the Army abroad.
But "such measures may weaken congressional war powers and erode congressional controls on the use of the funds," the CRS said.