- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Senate on Thursday shot down a bid to increase the Pentagon’s budget by nearly $18 billion to pay for more weapons and troops, a bitter loss for defense hawks who pushed for the infusion of money to begin reversing what they say is a decline in the U.S. military’s readiness for combat.

Democrats demanded but failed to secure an equal boost in spending for nondefense programs, including efforts to combat the Zika virus and opioid addiction.

Senators rejected the plan by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to add $17.8 billion to the account the Pentagon uses for financing wartime operations. The extra money would have been used to buy additional ships, jet fighters and helicopters and to reverse planned cuts in the number of service members.

The vote was 56-42, four short of the 60-vote threshold necessary to move ahead on the amendment to the defense policy bill.

“You vote ‘no’ on this and the consequences will be on your shoulders,” McCain cautioned his Senate colleagues before the vote. “The military is not ready.”

Eleven Republicans joined 31 Democrats in rejecting the measure.

McCain and other Republicans said the money would fill severe budget shortfalls caused by a budget agreement reached last year that restricts defense spending to predetermined levels. The deal, however, doesn’t cover the wartime account. The Obama administration sought $58.8 billion for the account, known as overseas contingency operations.

Many lawmakers who supported the budget agreement nonetheless objected to what they called “arbitrary limits” that they say have left the armed forces undersized and unprepared to meet growing worldwide threats.

Senior U.S. defense officials have previously warned that adding more money for defense could create more problems than it solves unless there are corresponding increases in subsequent years.

In a recent letter to his Senate colleagues, McCain depicted a U.S. military in free fall, frayed by more than 15 years of near-constant demands. He said he feared a future in which U.S. troops are sent into battle “without sufficient training or equipment to fight a war that will take longer, be larger, cost more and ultimately claim more American lives than it otherwise would have.”

But Democrats and close to a dozen Republicans, including several strong fiscal conservatives, refused to go along. Democrats said a central tenet of the budget deal is that any increases in government spending be split equally between defense and nondefense.

The top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, proposed an equivalent funding boost for programs not managed by the Pentagon but which Reed and other Democrats said are also essential to U.S. national security.

Reed’s amendment sought $18 billion for the battle against the Zika virus and opioid addiction, border and airport security, rebuilding the nation’s highways and water infrastructure, targeting the Islamic State’s finances, and more. But the amendment failed to a meet 60-vote threshold, losing 55-43.

A program that allows Afghan civilians who assisted the American-led coalition to escape being harmed or killed by the Taliban is in danger of expiring due to a procedural dispute that led to a harsh exchange of words in the Senate.

An amendment to extend and expand the so-called special immigrant visa program bogged down late Thursday after Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, objected to voting on the measure.

Afghans who receive the visas can resettle in the United States. A bipartisan group of senators want to extend the program through 2017 and grant an additional 2,500 visas.

But Lee, who said he supports the Afghan visa program, demanded that senators also agree to a vote on his amendment. His measure prevents the government from detaining indefinitely U.S. citizens who are suspected of supporting a terrorist group and are apprehended on American soil.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., objected to a vote on Lee’s amendment, leading to a stalemate. Graham said Lee’s amendment could lead to terrorists being treated as criminals instead of enemy combatants.

McCain assailed Lee for refusing to budge. He said blocking the vote on the visa program amounted to signing the “death warrants” of Afghans who helped the United States.

“They’re going to die if we don’t pass this amendment and take them out of harm’s way,” McCain said to Lee. “Don’t you understand the gravity of that?”

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Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rplardner

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