- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved a $648 billion defense authorization bill that faces a veto by President Bush over a provision that protects homosexuals under federal hate-crime laws.

The bill, which sets Pentagon policy but does not provide funds, included authorization for about $142 billion for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, an amount untouched after Democrats’ failed bids to force a U.S. pullout from Iraq.

VIDEO:Fewer military and civilian deaths in Iraq

Senate Democrats likely will again challenge Mr. Bush’s war policy with debate of the $459 billion defense appropriations bill that is scheduled to start today or later with a separate $189 billion emergency war-funding bill.

The defense authorization bill passed in a 92-3 vote. The “no” votes were cast by two prominent antiwar Democrats, Sens. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the bill would help repair the U.S. military “where our commander in chief has so badly mismanaged them.”

“As President Bush’s flawed Iraq strategy stretches our military to its breaking point, we are addressing troop-readiness problems and ensuring our troops and National Guard members have the equipment and training they need to do their jobs,” the Nevada Democrat said.

The bill included a 3.5 percent pay raise for military personnel, nearly $950 million for military health care and $23.6 billion for armored vehicles resistant to the roadside bombs that are Iraqi insurgents’ best weapon. It also cut funding to several weapons systems and the missile-defense program.

Democratic leaders said they were not confident that the final vote reflected Republican support to overturn a veto over the homosexual hate-crime amendment, which only passed by a margin far short of the two-thirds majority needed to topple a veto.

“I have trouble believing the president would veto a defense bill over hate crimes,” said Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “I can’t even fathom that.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has said the measure jeopardizes the entire bill, despite the popular programs it contains.

No U.S. president has ever vetoed a defense authorization bill.

The White House, however, balked at the hate-crime legislation and several other measures in the bill, including two provisions that would increase Congress’ authority to compel testimony from intelligence agencies.

If these provisions are not stripped when the Senate and House versions are reconciled, the defense bill would join legislation expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) in an upcoming veto showdown between Mr. Bush and the Democrat-led Congress.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said the hate-crime amendment showed what the Democrats really value.

“This puts our brave men and women at risk just so they can curry favor with homosexuals,” he said. “That is about as un-American as it gets.”

The House passed its $646 billion defense authorization bill by a wide margin in May, drawing a veto threat for amendments requiring the Pentagon to favor American-made productsand to grant collective-bargaining rights to Pentagon civilian employees.

The hate-crime amendment by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, would lower the threshold for victims to prove a crime was motivated by bias and would add to the law’s scope crimes that target a victim because he is homosexual, transsexual or disabled.

Mr. Kennedy and supporters of the measure, which charges the Justice Department with investigating crimes potentially motivated by sexual orientation as it can for crimes considered racially or religiously motivated, likened hate crimes to terrorism and said the defense bill is a perfect fit for it. The House passed a similar measure as a stand-alone bill May 3, provoking a White House veto threat.

The White House said the bill makes federal crimes out of acts that already are against the law and might violate the Constitution.

Democrats say they relish vetoes of the defense bill or the SCHIP bill, which Mr. Bush also promises to veto. They say it would force congressional Republicans to take politically treacherous positions opposing military programs and health care for children.

Religious groups also are pressing the White House to veto the legislation because, they say citing precedents from Europe and Canada, it could criminalize church sermons against homosexuality and endow homosexuals with extra rights. Supporters of the measure say it targets violent acts, not speech, and seeks to combat bigotry and discrimination.

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