House Oks Defense bill, despite veto threat

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly backed a $601 billion defense authorization bill that spares planes, ships and military bases in an election-year nod to hometown interests.

Ignoring a White House veto threat, Republicans and Democrats united behind the popular measure that authorizes spending on weapons and personnel for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The vote was 325-98 for the legislation which now must be reconciled with a work-in-progress Senate version. All southwest Ohio lawmakers voted yes.

The Pentagon had proposed retiring the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane and the A-10 Warthog close-air support aircraft as well as shuttering unnecessary bases.

Overall, the National Defense Authorization Act, would provide $495.8 billion for the core defense budget, $17.9 billion for energy programs within Pentagon spending and $79.4 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations. Spending on the military is being cut after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deficit-driven budget reductions are taking a toll.

Working within spending limits, the Pentagon proposed retiring decades-old aircraft programs, including the A-10 Warthog, a close air support plane, and the U-2 spy plane of the Cold War era. The Defense Department also sought congressional approval to close military bases deemed unessential and slightly increase out-of-pocket costs for housing and health care.

Not this year, said Republicans and Democrats alike. They left popular personnel benefits untouched despite repeated warnings that the skyrocketing costs of Pentagon entitlement programs come at the expense of modernizing and training the military.

Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president for federal programs and a former congressional staffer, said the bill does not endorse another round of base closures, but the military will assess infrastructure and long-term force needs that could play into future closures.

“The sense that I get is the bill opposes (base realignment and closure) but it leaves the door open a crack for a BRAC that could happen as early as 2017,” he said.

The bill addresses sexual assault in the military, protects service members rights in child custody cases, could open airspace for the Ohio/Indiana Unmanned Aerial Systems Center and Test Complex, and ensures funding for tank upgrades at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, among other provisions, according to U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Air and Tactical Land Forces. He said the pending bill eases the impact of sequestration, or automatic budget cuts.

To address sexual assault in the ranks, the bill included the Furthering Accountability and Individual Rights (FAIR) Military Act that Turner co-introduced with U.S. Rep. Nikki Tsongas, D-Mass.

Among other provisions, the bill would change the military rules of evidence to prohibit the accused from using good military character as defense in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime.

The “good soldier defense” could encompass a defendant’s military record of reliability, dependability, professionalism and reputation as an individual who could be counted on in war and peacetime.

“This legislation takes action to confront the pervasive and deep-rooted culture that has perpetuated this serious problem and ensures that the perpetrators of these terrible crimes … are no longer capable of using unrelated, subjective factors as evidence of innocence,” Turner said in a statement.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, objects to pinching the budget for readiness by $1.2 billion to cover the cost of favored ships and planes. Smith warned that the patchwork approach this year will make budgeting nearly impossible in future years.

Navy cruisers, an aircraft carrier and AWACS aircraft, the airborne warning and control system, were saved.

The House engaged in a spirited debate over post-Sept. 11 laws and practices, and whether they are overly broad and still viable nearly 13 years after the terror attacks. Lawmakers pressed to sunset the authorization given to the president to use military force, to end the indefinite detention of terror suspects captured on U.S. soil and to close the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The bill imposes limits on President Barack Obama’s handling of terror suspects at Guantanamo, barring him from transferring detainees to maximum-security prisons in the United States.e Military

The White House late Wednesday said the president would veto the bill if it “continues unwarranted restrictions regarding Guantanamo detainees.”

Hours later, the House rejected a measure to close Guantanamo. It also maintained its support for the authorization to use military force and indefinite detention.

The House Rules Committee allowed 162 amendments to the legislation but rejected measures on immigration that would have offered citizenship to young immigrants brought here illegally who serve in the military. The panel also rejected legislation that would have opened the U.S. military academies to such immigrants.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the far-reaching defense bill was inappropriate for the debate on immigration.

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