House Approves $343 Billion Defense Bill
By CAROLYN SKORNECK
.c The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (Sept. 25) - The House overwhelmingly approved a $343 billion defense bill that fully funds President Bush's overall request but takes some money away from his missile defense program and aims it at counter-terrorism efforts.
President Bush immediately praised the House action, calling it a ''vital step to ensure our nation's security.''
The 398-17 vote Tuesday was no surprise after the House, by a simple voice vote, endorsed a bipartisan amendment to divert some missile defense money to the fight against terrorism, a decision made in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks by suicide hijackers.
Rep. Bob Stump, R-Ariz., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called it a balanced bill aided by the amendment he crafted with the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri.
''Clearly more than this will eventually be needed to properly respond to ... this new challenge,'' Stump said, but it provides ''an initial downpayment until the president can better assess the long-term needs.''
Skelton said that under different circumstances, there could have been a ''very spirited debate'' over missile defense.
''Then America was struck with an abominable act that demanded a united response,'' he said. ''Both parties from the speaker and minority leader on down agreed that whatever our differences are on this subject, the nation would not be served by a divisive debate.''
In the Senate, meanwhile, work on its defense authorization bill stumbled over objections by a couple of senators - to the obvious frustration of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
''We can't continue to deliberate and to object and to delay,'' Daschle said on the Senate floor before ruling out any more votes Tuesday evening. ''I'll be patient, but patience wears thin. We have a lot of work to do.''
Assistant Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted that the bill contained provisions that would help Reservists and National Guard members now being called to duty.
''This bill is going to go down as a result of nothing to do with this bill?'' he asked, saying 98 percent of the Senate wants to get the bill done.
Standing in the way were attempts by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., to add the energy bill to the defense measure, and by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, to let private contractors compete with prison industries for defense contracts.
Earlier in the day, the Senate endorsed Bush's base-closings initiative, 53-47, as Democrats strongly opposed an effort to remove the provision from the defense bill. The provision calls for one round of closings in 2003. An independent panel would decide which bases would be affected, and Congress and the president could approve or reject the entire list.
The House, however, deliberately omitted any mention of base closings in an attempt to derail them, and the authorization bill cannot become law until a House-Senate conference resolves differences between the versions approved by each chamber.
The $343 billion measure, the total Bush requested, would authorize money for the military efforts of the Defense and Energy departments for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
Bush had sought $8.3 billion for missile defense, a $3 billion increase over this year's spending. The Senate agreed last week to provide the full amount, but would let the president use $1.3 billion to combat terrorism instead.
The House ultimately called for authorizing $7.9 billion for missile defense, moving about $400 million to anti-terrorism, bringing that account to about $6 billion.
In the Senate, Inhofe proposed, then withdrew, an amendment regarding the Puerto Rico's Vieques Island, where the Navy has trained for decades. The amendment would have canceled a planned November binding referendum of Vieques residents on whether the Navy should stop training in 2003 - when Bush has said it will stop training - or stay and infuse the island with $50 million worth of public works projects.
The White House does not want the binding referendum held and the House bill would call it off while requiring the Navy to keep using Vieques until an equivalent or better training site is found.
In a nonbinding referendum in July, 68 percent of island residents said the Navy should leave immediately.
Differences between the House and Senate bills ultimately will be resolved by a conference committee.