House approves $643 billion defense package

After days of arduous debate and weeks of committee markup, the House approved Friday funding for the military for fiscal 2013 with a vote of 299-120, including provisions that would postpone sequester cuts for another year.

The work resulted in bipartisan bill that received praise from both sides of the aisle during floor debate that would provide for troops and plan for the future.  The Senate begins work on its version next week; President Barack Obama reiterated threats that he will veto the measure.

The 1,000-page National Defense Authorization Act totaled $643 billion before amendments, with $4 billion in spending above Obama’s budget request, and $8 billion in total beyond spending limits agreed to in last year’s Budget Control Act.

The bill would also preserve aircraft programs considered critical by House Republicans , such as the C-130 Hercules and C-27 J Spartan; bar the administration from raising Tricare insurance fees for veterans; and fund a 1.7 percent pay increase for the fighting forces.  The bill would also give teeth to U.S. threats of military action against Iran to prevent it acquiring a nuclear weapon by declaring clear intent.

In another hotly contested provision, the bill would call for creation of a third nuclear missile defense site, on the east coast, allotting $100 million in fiscal 2013 to begin work on the site–even though the military has not asked for such a site to date.

Republicans said the provision was a reasoned response to credible threats from North Korea and Iran, while Democrats accused them of playing politics with the request.

Despite debate, House Armed Services Committee members said they were pleased with the final bill.

“The legislation continues my priorities set forth when I was elected chairman. It contains no earmarks,” HASC chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said. “It carefully analyzes the Defense Department for inefficiencies and savings. It helps ensure the Pentagon’s new national security defense strategy is not a hollow one. And, despite historic cuts to our wartime military, it plugs critical capability and strategic shortfalls opened in the President’s budget submission.”

Ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash) praised the defense authorization act as a sign of successful bipartisanship in the committee. “This bill prioritizes the needs of the warfighter,” he said.

Much of three days of debate on the bill was devoted to considering 142 amendments, a standard number for the always-dense defense funding bill.

An attempt by Democrats to defund the Afghan war, forcing U.S. troops out of the country entirely by 2014, sparked heated debate, as lawmakers like former Army lieutenant colonel Allen West accused his colleagues of abandoning the efforts of troops as the U.S. government had done in Vietnam.

“I will not turn my back on those men and women who are still my friends, some of them even my relatives,” he said. The amendment failed easily, 303-113.

A vote on a bipartisan provision that would grant terrorists captured on U.S. soil full Miranda rights came much closer to passage.

The amendment was sponsored by Smith and a freshman tea party congressman, Justin Amash, in response to a 2001 law allowing the President to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely.

To many Republicans, the amendment meant that terrorists actually had incentives–additional rights–for choosing to attack within the U.S.

“Illegal aliens who come to this country to carry out attacks, it bestows upon them constitutional rights,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). “It means that as soon as a member of al-Qaeda sets foot on American soil, the first thing he hears after ‘you are under arrest,’ is ‘you have the right to remain silent.’”

Smith said the bill only provided for basic rights for anyone accused of a crime. “I would like to remind everyone, particularly tea party conservatives, that just because the government arrests you doesn’t mean you’re guilty,” he said.

The Heritage Foundation sent out an Action Alert urging members of Congress to defeat the measure.

“The Smith-Amash Amendment does not ‘fix’ anything, but rather it partially disarms the commander in chief by eliminating the possibility of treating captured terrorists as enemy combatants and lawfully interrogating them,” a statement accompanying the bill said. “This denies the commander-in-chief the flexibility all Presidents have had during wartime at exactly the same time al-Qaeda is actively recruiting Westerners to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil.”

In a Friday morning vote, the amendment failed 238-182.

Obama reiterated threats to veto the bill when it arrives on his desk earlier this week, citing efforts by the House to overstep authority and funding in excess of the Budget Control Act.

The Senate will begin markup on its version of the bill next week.