- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday backed construction of a missile-defense site on the East Coast, rejecting Pentagon arguments that the facility is unnecessary and Democratic complaints that the nearly $5 billion project amounts to wasteful spending in a time of tight budgets.

In rancorous, lengthy debate, Republicans insisted that the site is necessary in the event that Iran or North Korea develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of attacking the East Coast.

The chief proponent of constructing the site, Rep. Michael Turner, Ohio Republican, said, “We need to proceed with missile defense whether this president wants to or not.”

Democrats countered that spending billions on missile defense made no sense when the threat from the two nations was highly uncertain.

This “would be spending up to $5 billion in the next three years on a missile-defense system that doesn’t work,” said Rep. John Garamendi, California Democrat, who offered an amendment to eliminate the project from the GOP-backed bill.

On a largely party-line vote, the panel rejected Mr. Garamendi’s effort, 33-28.

The committee fleshed out a blueprint for next year that calls for a base defense budget of $554 billion, including nuclear weapons spending, plus $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts. That compares with the administration’s proposal of $551 billion, plus $88 billion.

The all-day session was expected to stretch into early Thursday morning as the committee dealt with spending on weapons, troops and various policy issues, such as the cost of health care for military retirees.

Since the mid-1980s, the Pentagon has spent nearly $150 billion on missile-defense programs and envisions an additional $44 billion over the next five years. But it is not looking to construct a facility on the East Coast.

Gen. Charles Jacoby, the head of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, told Congress earlier this year, “Today’s threats do not require an East Coast missile field, and we do not have plans to do so.”

Republicans injected presidential politics into the debate, questioning President Obama’s commitment to missile defense, noting that an open microphone caught Mr. Obama telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March that he would have more room to negotiate after the November election.

In a pre-emptive move, the committee backed an amendment by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., prohibiting any spending on implementing an international agreement on activities in space unless the pact has been ratified by the Senate or authorized by law.

The idea of another round of domestic base closings lost by a 44-18 vote. Lawmakers have challenged the savings from previous closings. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had proposed two rounds, but there’s no enthusiasm in Congress for that during an election year.

The committee chairman, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, said the legislation represents a “modest” increase over the administration’s proposal and “actively rebuilds the military within the constrained resources available to us.”