House panel backs $649 billion in defense spending

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House panel backs $649 billion in defense spending

Post by ToddS on Tue Jun 14, 2011 7:24 pm

House panel backs $649 billion in defense spending

By David Alexander and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON | Tue Jun 14, 2011 5:34pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers expressed growing skepticism about the war in Afghanistan on Tuesday as a House panel approved $649 billion in defense spending for the 2012 fiscal year, including $118 billion for wars abroad.

Lawmakers urged President Barack Obama to step up the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and endorsed tougher oversight of U.S. spending in Pakistan during debate on next year's defense spending in the House Appropriations Committee.

The panel approved the $649 billion bill on a voice vote and forwarded it to the full House of Representatives for consideration, expected next week.

The Senate is still working on its version of the bill. The two houses must pass the same bill before sending it to Obama for his signature.

The Obama administration had sought a $553 billion Pentagon base budget for the fiscal year beginning in October. Of that, $539 billion was covered by the defense appropriations bill. The remainder, for items such as nuclear arms and military construction, is included in other appropriations bills.

House lawmakers, trying to deal with a $1.4 trillion U.S. deficit and a $14 trillion debt, trimmed Obama's Pentagon base budget total by nearly $9 billion, approving $530 billion plus nearly $119 billion for overseas contingency operations like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is about 18 percent of Obama's $3.7 trillion budget proposal.

That was nearly $22 billion less than the current fiscal year, mainly due to falling costs associated with the Iraq war. But Democratic Representative Norman Dicks warned the price of the conflict in Afghanistan was becoming unsustainable.

"I am increasingly convinced that the administration has to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and at the same time work for a political settlement," he said.

NEEDS AT HOME

While endorsing the president on Iraq and Afghanistan, Dicks said it was "not going to be realistic" to continue funding the wars at the current levels in coming years.

"Are we going to educate the American people, are we going to take care of the unemployed or are we going to continue doing nation-building in Afghanistan?" he asked. "I think that is a choice we are all going to have to consider."

The panel agreed to a proposal by Representative Jeff Flake to tighten congressional oversight over $1.1 billion in counterinsurgency funds approved for Pakistan. Congress would have 30 days to review administration spending plans before 75 percent of the funds could be released.

The funds are aimed at helping Pakistan build the counterinsurgency capabilities it needs to fight Islamist militants within its borders.

The committee's bill cut $8.9 billion from Obama's request for 2012 defense spending, mainly by delaying procurement and development costs for some weapons systems to later years.

Hardest hit was the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance Systems program, which aims to convert Hawker Beechcraft airplanes into pilotless surveillance drones for the Army. The panel cut Obama's request by more than half a billion dollars, approving only $15 million in spending for the year.

The panel approved $453 million for M1A2 Abrams tanks built by General Dynamics Land Systems, well above the president's $272 million request, a decision aimed at preventing a closure of the production line.

It also authorized $5.9 billion to build 32 of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft as well as $2.7 billion for continued development and testing.

Other big Pentagon contractors include Boeing Co, Northrop Grumman Corp, BAE Systems Plc and Raytheon Co.

Looking for places to pare back, the panel agreed to limit spending on military bands to no more than $200 million next year, compared with $320 million currently.

But the committee resisted some proposed cuts.

When Democratic Representative Betty McCollum suggested a measure to force the Pentagon to curb the $100 million it spends annually in race car sponsorships as part of its recruitment campaign, the lawmakers balked.

"Perhaps," one suggested, "she does not understand the cultural relationship of NASCAR (stock car racing) to those of us who live in the South."

(Editing by Doina Chiacu and John O'Callaghan)

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