Senate approves $401.3B defense bill

WASHINGTON (APOnline) The Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a $401.3 billion defense bill that

gives the Pentagon greater control over its civilian work force and eases environmental restrictions on the military.

The bill authorizing 2004 defense programs now goes to President Bush for his signature.

Democrats joined Republicans in the 95-3 vote, despite their objections to the broader Pentagon authority. They stressed the measure would provide new benefits to both active duty soldiers and veterans.

But the bill was opposed by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who said it "transfers vast, unchecked powers to the Defense Department while avoiding any break with the business-as-usual approach to increasing defense spending."

The bill is $1.5 billion more than the amount request by Bush and about 2.2% more than Congress approved last year. It was approved by the House on Friday in a 362-40 vote.

It raises salaries for soldiers by an average of 4.15% and extends increases in combat and family separation pay.

It would also partially reverse a policy set in the 1890s of reducing disabled veterans' retirement benefits by $1 for every dollar received in disability pay. The change would be phased in over 10 years and mainly help the more seriously disabled about a quarter-million veterans. It will cost $22 billion.

In a compromise, the bill allows the Air Force to lease 20 Boeing 767 planes as midair refueling tankers and buy 80 more. The Air Force says it urgently needs to replace its aging fleet, but some senators said its original proposal to lease all 100 planes was too expensive.

The measure would also authorize some of the Pentagon's most costly programs, including $9.1 billion for ballistic missile defense, $6.6 billion for the construction of seven new ships, $4.4 billion for developing the Joint Strike Fighter and $3.5 billion for 22 F/A-22 Raptor jet fighters.

But the Pentagon lobbied most intensively over changes affecting civil service and environmental regulations and generally prevailed.

The Pentagon will have greater flexibility in hiring, firing and promoting civilian employees. It says current rules force it to use military personnel for jobs better suited for civilians. Democrats and unions say the bill hurts workers by weakening job protections, overtime rules and other rights.

Democrats also said the bill goes too far in providing the military with exemptions to the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Pentagon and congressional Republicans have said those laws have hampered training exercises.

"We are spending such (an inordinate) amount of money protecting the suspected habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker that it's having a very deteriorating effect on our ability to train," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.

The bill also lifts a decade-old ban on research into low-yield nuclear weapons and authorizes $15 million for continued research into the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, capable of destroying deep underground bunkers. Republicans say the United States needs to adapt its nuclear arsenal to defend against terrorism and other modern threats. Democrats say the change could trigger a new arms race and increase the risk of nuclear war.

The bill adds 2,400 soldiers to the Army. The Pentagon has not sought additional troops, but lawmakers are concerned that the military is being stretched thin by demands in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world.

In addition to Byrd, Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and James Jeffords, I-Vt., voted against the bill. Two Democrats, both presidential candidates, were absent: John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina.

The bill does not provide the money for military programs. Most of the funding will come from a $368 billion defense appropriations bill signed by Bush on Sept. 30.

Additional funds for military construction projects would be provided under a separate $9.3 billion measure approved by the Senate in a 98-0 vote Wednesday. The House approved the measure last week.

The military construction bill is $1.4 billion below last year's level, but $200 million over Bush's request. Lawmakers added more than 100 projects for military facilities in their home districts that Bush had not requested.

The measure would be the fifth of the 13 spending bills for the new budget year that Congress will have completed.