- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Senate gave final approval yesterday to a $401.3 billion defense bill handing the Pentagon greater control over its civilian work force and easing environmental restrictions on the military.

The bill authorizing 2004 defense programs now goes to President Bush for his signature.

Democrats joined Republicans in the 95-3 vote, despite their objections to the broader Pentagon authority. They stressed that the measure would provide new benefits to both active-duty soldiers and veterans.

The bill was opposed by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, who said it “transfers vast, unchecked powers to the Defense Department while avoiding any break with the business-as-usual approach to increasing defense spending.”

The bill provides $1.5 billion more than the amount requested by Mr. Bush and about 2.2 percent more than Congress approved last year. It was approved by the House on Friday in a 362-40 vote.

It raises salaries for soldiers by an average of 4.15 percent and extends increases in combat and family separation pay.

It also partially reverses a policy set in the 1890s of reducing disabled veterans’ retirement benefits by $1 for every dollar received in disability pay. The change would be phased in over 10 years and would help mainly the more seriously disabled — about a quarter-million veterans. The provision will cost $22 billion.

In a compromise, the bill allows the Air Force to lease 20 Boeing 767 planes as midair refueling tankers and buy 80 more. The Air Force says it urgently needs to replace its aging fleet, but some senators said its original proposal to lease all 100 planes was too expensive.

The measure also would authorize some of the Pentagon’s most costly programs, including $9.1 billion for ballistic-missile defense, $6.6 billion for the construction of seven new ships, $4.4 billion for developing the Joint Strike Fighter and $3.5 billion for 22 F/A-22 Raptor jet fighters.

But the Pentagon lobbied most intensively over changes affecting civil service and environmental regulations — and generally prevailed.

The Pentagon will have greater flexibility in hiring, firing and promoting civilian employees. It says current rules force it to use military personnel for jobs better suited for civilians. Democrats and unions say the bill hurts workers by weakening job protections.

Democrats also said the bill goes too far in providing the military with exemptions to the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Pentagon and congressional Republicans have said those laws have hampered training exercises.

“We are spending such [an inordinate] amount of money protecting the suspected habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker that it’s having a very deteriorating effect on our ability to train,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican.


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