Congress completes $633B defense bill

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress sent President Barack Obama a $633 billion defense bill for next year that would tighten penalties on Iran to thwart its nuclear ambitions and bulk up security at diplomatic missions worldwide after the deadly Sept. 11 raid in Libya.

The Senate voted 81-14 on Friday for the massive policy measure that covers the cost of ships, aircraft, weapons and military personnel. The vote came less than 24 hours after the House passed the bill, 315-107.

The White House has threatened a veto, but it remains unclear whether President Barack Obama will reject the solidly bipartisan legislation. The bill passed by veto-proof margins.

The vote came against the backdrop of looming reductions in projected military spending driven by the automatic, across-the-board cuts that will take place if the "fiscal cliff" negotiations fail. The Pentagon faces cuts of $55 billion after the first of the year that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned would be devastating to the services.

Even if that is averted, the bill approved Friday reflects cuts in defense dollars that Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to in August 2011 as well as the end to the war in Iraq and the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The bill would authorize $528 billion for the Defense Department's base budget, $17 billion for defense and nuclear programs in the Energy Department and $88.5 billion for the war in Afghanistan.

The bill is about $29 billion less than the current level, largely due to smaller amounts for Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a speech this week, Panetta complained that lawmakers spared weapons that he had wanted to retire and steered money to other programs. The bill, which is $1.7 billion more than Obama requested, saves a version of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, includes upgrades for tanks and money for armored vehicles.

"Aircraft, ships, tanks, bases, even those that have outlived their usefulness, have a natural political constituency," Panetta said. "Readiness does not."

"What's more, readiness is too often sacrificed in favor of a larger and less effective force. I am determined to avoid that outcome."

Panetta said members of the House and Senate "diverted about $74 billion of what we asked for in savings in our proposed budget to the Congress, and they diverted them to other areas that, frankly, we don't need."

The bill responds to new threats and upheaval around the globe while still providing billions for the decade-plus war in Afghanistan. The measure presses the military on possible options to end the bloodshed in Syria.

The final measure, a product of negotiations between the House and Senate, addresses several concerns raised by the Obama administration. It would eliminate restrictions on alternative fuels that the White House had complained about and jettison limits on the administration's ability to implement a nuclear weapons reduction treaty.

The bill would limit the president's authority to transfer terrorist suspects from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for one year — a provision similar to current law. That had drawn complaints from the White House.

Election-year politics and changes in society shaped the final measure.

As suicides among active-duty soldiers have accelerated, the bill would allow a commander officer or health profession to ask if a member of the services owns a firearm if they consider the individual at risk for either suicide or hurting others.

Negotiators kept a Senate-passed provision sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., that expands health insurance coverage for military women and their dependents who decide to have abortions in cases of rape and incest.

Previously, health coverage applied only to abortions in cases where the life of the mother was endangered.

Democrats argued throughout the election year that Republicans were waging a "war on women" over contraception and abortion, a charge the GOP denied. Democrats and Obama held a clear edge with female voters in the election and some Republicans are reappraising their approach to issues important to women.

Negotiators jettisoned a House provision that would have banned gay marriage on military installations, weeks after the chapel at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point held its first same-sex marriage. A senior Army chaplain conducted the ceremony. The bill does have a conscience clause for chaplains.

The measure includes a 1.7 percent pay raise for military personnel.

The legislated sanctions would hit Iran's energy, shipping and shipbuilding sectors as well as Iran's ports, blacklisting them as "entities of proliferation concern." The bill would impose penalties on anyone caught supplying precious metals to Iran, and sanctions on Iranian broadcasting.

The bill eliminated a House provision barring the military from buying alternative fuels if the cost exceeds traditional fossil fuels, a measure that had drawn a veto threat. Instead, negotiators said the Pentagon could do so as long as the Energy and Agriculture departments make their financial contributions to the work.

The bill also watered down a House effort to require construction of an East Coast missile defense site, instead pressing the Pentagon to study three possible locations.

Months after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, the bill would provide an additional 1,000 Marines for embassy security.

Reacting to relentless violence in Syria, the bill would require the Pentagon to report to Congress on possible military options.

The bill would authorize nearly $480 million for U.S.-Israeli missile defense, including $211 million for Iron Dome, the system designed to intercept short-range rockets and mortars fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza at southern Israel.

The agreement retained a Senate provision that stops the Pentagon from sending additional spies overseas until Congress has answers about the cost and how the spies would be used.

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