- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

The House broke with the Bush administration over military base closings yesterday, disrupting the otherwise smooth passage of a massive defense bill aimed at securing the nation’s military strength and winning the war in Iraq.

The House voted 259-162 to delay base closings until 2007. Within minutes, the White House issued a statement repeating that the defense secretary would recommend that the president veto any bill that “weakens, delays or repeals” the base closing authority.

That was one of the few trouble spots before the House voted 391-34 to pass the $422 billion bill that authorizes defense programs for next year and adds $25 billion to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the first months. The new budget year begins in October.

There was relatively little debate on Iraq war policy, although earlier in the day President Bush traveled to Capitol Hill to rally Republicans on the war effort and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, criticized what she said was the president’s “incompetence” in leading the nation to war.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to add language to the bill calling for a select congressional committee to investigate the prisoner-abuse issue in Iraq, but were defeated on a 224-202 vote, mainly along party lines.

Each of the four previous rounds of base closings from 1988 to 1995 brought objections from lawmakers concerned about the economic losses a closure would bring to their districts. The Pentagon argues that it still has more than 20 percent excess capacity and could save billions of dollars by closing unneeded facilities.

This time, opponents said the timing was bad because of the war in Iraq. The Pentagon, said Rep. Joel Hefley, Colorado Republican, “is experiencing too many stresses and changes to make effective base closing decisions by May of 2005.”

Under the “base realignment and closure,” or BRAC, authority, the Pentagon draws up a list of excess capacity facilities and an independent commission picks which bases to close. Congress can accept or reject, but not change, that decision.

Rep. Mark Kennedy, Minnesota Republican, offered the amendment to the defense bill that would have eliminated language delaying the 2005 round of closings. He argued that the money saved from closing excess facilities could be used to modernize weapons systems and improve the military quality of life.

There is a long way to go before Mr. Bush has to decide whether to veto a record-breaking defense bill. The Senate, also considering its version of the authorization bill, earlier this week defeated, by a 49-47 vote, an amendment to delay the closings, and the House provision could be removed when the two chambers negotiate a compromise.

The White House issued another veto threat over language in the House bill that would restrict Pentagon flexibility on “competitive sourcing,” or contracting out some Pentagon jobs to private companies. It would be Mr. Bush’s first veto since taking office in 2001.

Otherwise, there was widespread agreement on the bill that would approve increases in spending by almost $21 billion over the current budget year and emphasize programs that improve the combat safety and financial well-being of troops.

The House bill, generally mirrored by the Senate version, includes an across-the-board 3.5 percent pay raise for military personnel and raises the hazardous pay for troops facing hostile fire from $150 to $225 a month. It also increases separation pay for those stationed overseas and improves health care programs for reservists.

To answer complaints that U.S. troops are not adequately protected from insurgent strikes, the bill contains more than $1 billion for better armored Humvees and add-on ballistic protection for vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It requires that the Army add 30,000 troops and the Marines 9,000 in the next three years.

Rep. Norm Dicks, Washington Democrat, won approval of an amendment that requires the Air Force to complete negotiations by March 1 next year on purchasing 80 Boeing 767 tankers to replace its aging tanker fleet. The Air Force also is to lease 20 tankers from Boeing.

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