Pentagon spending survives ax

  • Article by: JONATHAN WEISMAN , New York Times
  • Updated: May 18, 2012 - 8:32 PM

The U.S. House voted to spare the Defense Department from across-the-board spending cuts agreed to last year.

WASHINGTON - The House beat back an unusual coalition of liberal and conservative lawmakers Friday and approved a contentious Pentagon policy bill that preserves the power of indefinite detention of terrorism suspects apprehended on U.S. soil. The bill also breaks spending caps agreed to less than a year ago.

The bill, the National Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal year that begins in October, makes clear that House Republicans -- and many Democrats -- are opposed to including the Pentagon in the coming era of fiscal austerity. The $642 billion measure, approved 299-120, exceeds spending limits enshrined in the Budget Control Act of 2011 by $8 billion.

The measure would thwart the Obama administration's efforts to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and would impede its ability to carry out the nuclear arms reduction treaty ratified by the Senate in 2010.

In one unexpected twist, Democrats on Friday helped pass a conservative GOP amendment that would end the permanent deployment of combat brigades in Europe.

"I've always felt there could be cuts in defense that don't in any way compromise defense capability," said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., and a military veteran, who won passage of the cut.

The White House has promised a veto if the final version maintained the House spending levels and tied President Obama's hands on detainee policies. But House Republicans say that the legislation's bipartisan support should give them leverage at least to demand the cancellation of next year's automatic across-the-board spending cuts when House and Senate negotiators meet to hash out a compromise.

"At a minimum, it brings sequestration and the reversal of it front and center at the conference," said Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., whose amendment called for the replacement of those defense cuts with cuts to domestic programs.

Democrats said those demands belied the Republicans' posture of fiscal rectitude. With a budget deficit exceeding $1 trillion, Republicans have taken tax increases and defense cuts off the table, leaving only domestic spending on the chopping block.

"These guys are talking out of both sides of their mouth," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee. "Despite all their talk of deficit reduction, they're putting more money into the Pentagon than the Pentagon has asked for."

The Defense Authorization Act is required each year to set Pentagon policy and spending levels, but House Republicans have turned it into a showcase for their opposition to Obama administration policies. This year, Democratic leaders had some surprise support. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a Tea Party-backed freshman Republican, teamed up with Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., to declare that terrorism suspects apprehended on U.S. soil should no longer be detained indefinitely without charge or trial.

But the left-right coalition fizzled in the face of charges that the two lawmakers were coddling terrorists. On the 238-182 vote against the amendment, as many Democrats -- 19 -- voted against it as Republicans voted for it.

But Amash said: "I'm confident that most of them are going to go back to their districts, and they are going to get hammered on this issue."

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