The Washington Times - July 18, 2012, 11:27PM

A deeply divided House voted late Wednesday to continue letting the Pentagon use taxpayer money to sponsor sports leagues and teams — a victory chiefly for NASCAR, which had fought feverishly to maintain tens of millions of dollars that go to some of its teams every year.

A liberal-conservative coalition had fought to ax the spending, arguing that at a time of trillion-dollar deficits the military shouldn’t be exempt from cuts. The coalition also argued that there’s no hard evidence the spending helps with recruiting young men and women for the armed forces, which is the given purpose for the funding, including $21 million from the National Guard.

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But their amendment was defeated 216-202, with 60 Democrats and 156 Republicans voting to preserve the money, estimated to be $72 million in 2013. The money goes to everything from mixed martial arts to motor racing.

“This vote was an important test for Republicans and Democrats as to whether they have the stomach to cut wasteful Pentagon spending at a time when Washington is facing trillion dollar deficits.  Unfortunately, a majority decided taxpayer-funded race cars and bass fishing were more important than deficit reduction,” said Betty McCollum, the Minnesota Democrat who’s now fought for more than a year to cut the money.

Her effort this year was joined by Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who has taken heat for representing a NASCAR-friendly area, but who said he can’t justify spending money without seeing real results.

Wednesday’s vote was closer than previous attempts to cut the money, and suggests a growing concern about this kind of spending.

The Army last week announced it would not renew its sponsorship with NASCAR’s No. 39 car, driven by Ryan Newman, arguing it doesn’t see a strong return on investment when it comes to new recruits.

But sports leagues, including NASCAR, and the National Guard Association, an outside group that lobbies on behalf of current and retired guard troops, said sponsorships are a particularly good way to get the military’s brand in front of young people, who are potential recruits.

The vote created a fascinating coalition. Voting to preserve the money were House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida Democrat who is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

But voting to cut the funding were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership team, joined by some of the most conservative cost-cutters such as Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the House conservative caucus.