Friday, November 07, 2003

AP on the $400 BILLION Defense Bill and All The Joy It Brings

Deal Reached on $400.5B Defense Bill
By KEN GUGGENHEIM, AP

WASHINGTON (Nov. 6) - House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement Thursday on a $400.5 billion defense bill that would raise soldiers' pay, give the Pentagon more control over its civilian employees and lift a ban on research on low-yield nuclear weapons.

The bill authorizing 2004 defense programs is likely to be approved by the House on Friday and by the Senate early next week. It will then go to President Bush for his signature.

"This is a great bill," said Chairman Duncan Hunter of California. "It makes sweeping reforms that will accrue to the benefit of men and women in uniform."

The House and Senate approved separate versions of the bill in the summer, but a dispute over expanding "Buy America" rules bogged down negotiations.

Hunter's proposal would have required that 65 percent of components in items purchased by the Pentagon be made in America, compared with 50 percent under current law. Certain items, such as machine tools and tires, would have to be made in America.

Details of the final language weren't available, but congressional staff said the 65 percent requirement would be dropped. They said the final language was expected to require the Pentagon to examine how domestic purchases could be increased and to bar purchases from countries that have refused to provide materials because of their objections to U.S. military operations.

"It got watered down by the Senate considerably, although there are a couple of provisions that did prevail," said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Skelton said he has some reservations about the bill, but "it's good for the troops and good for the families."

The bill would raise soldiers' pay by an average of 4.15 percent. It would also extend an increase in monthly combat pay to $225 a month from $150, and increase a monthly family separation allowance to $250 from $100.

Congress initially approved the combat pay and family separation increases in spring, but they expired Sept. 30. Democrats have repeatedly attacked the Bush administration for opposing an extension. The Pentagon has said it planned to ensure that compensation for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan remain stable by giving them other forms of raises.

The civilian personnel issue was one of the Pentagon's top priorities. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he needed more flexibility in hiring workers, firing incompetent ones and granting raises. He said that outdated personnel rules force the Pentagon to use service members for jobs better performed by civilians.

Unions and many Democrats opposed his plan, saying it strips workers' of basic rights. The Senate added additional worker protections and congressional staff said some of those provisions were likely to be included in the final version.

According to lawmakers and congressional staff, the bill also:

Includes a compromise plan to lease 20 Boeing 767 planes as midair refueling tankers and buy another 80. Some senators objected to the Air Force's original proposal to lease all 100 planes as too costly. The Bush administration agreed to the compromise Thursday.

Lifts a decade-old ban on the research of low-yield nuclear weapons, though it would require the administration to go back to Congress before development work could begin. It also authorizes $15 million for continued research into the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a powerful nuclear weapon capable of penetrating deep underground bunkers.

Democrats say this research could lead to a new generation of nuclear weapons and trigger a new arms race.

Grants the military exemptions to the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Pentagon says those and other environmental rules impede training exercises. Environmentalists say exemptions could be detrimental.

Allows foreign-born U.S. soldiers to seek citizenship after one year's service. Their immediate families could also become citizens. The change would follow an executive order by Bush to speed the process for foreign-born soldiers to become citizens.

Approves a $22 billion plan to partially overturn rules preventing disabled veterans from receiving some of their retirement pay.

The negotiators rejected a House provision that would restrict the number of military bases the Pentagon could shut in the 2005 round of closings. The House bill would have required the military to retain enough facilities to support a military force larger than today's. The White House strongly opposed the provision.

Instead, the compromise bill instructs the Pentagon to consider future threats as it goes through the base-closing process.

The bill does not provide the money for military programs. Most of the funding will come from a $368 billion defense appropriations bill signed by Bush on Sept. 30.

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