Senate panel approves $631 billion defense bill

Thursday - 5/24/2012, 5:47pm EDT

By DONNA CASSATA
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A Senate panel on Thursday rejected the Pentagon's proposed cuts in personnel and equipment for the Air National Guard as it completed a far-reaching, $631 billion defense budget for next year.

Republicans and Democrats on the Armed Services Committee unanimously backed the budget, which called for the same amount of money President Barack Obama had proposed for the military earlier this year. The total is $4 billion less than the House-passed bill, and House-Senate negotiators will have to work out the difference.

The committee followed Obama's lead on overall spending, but broke with the administration and the Pentagon on several policies. The panel rejected a call for another round of domestic military base closings and rebuffed the Pentagon's plan to raise enrollment fees for the military's health care program.

The Pentagon envisions reductions in the size of the force as it emerges from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cuts also reflect last year's budget agreement that calls for a $487 billion reduction in projected defense spending over 10 years, a number that could double if Congress and the Obama administration fail to agree on a way to avert automatic spending cuts in January 2013.

In its budget proposal, the Pentagon called for a cut of 5,100 from the Air National Guard, 3,900 from active duty and 900 reservists as well as 134 aircraft. The proposal ran headlong into a political reality: The nation's governors pushed back hard against the cuts, and so did members of Congress.

"Never underestimate the influence of the National Guard," Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, quipped at a Capitol Hill news conference.

The committee also voted to establish a national commission to make recommendations to Congress on the size of the Air Force. The commission would have to report to Congress by March 31, 2013.

"We want to prevent this kind of decision from being made in the future with little care as this one, frankly," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the committee.

The Pentagon has announced reductions in the Army from a peak of 570,000 to 490,000, and a cut in the Marine Corps by 20,000, to 182,000.

Arguing against limiting the cuts to the armed forces, Levin said the bill would reduce funds for civilian personnel and service contracting by 5 percent over five years, a step that the panel estimated would save $5 billion.

The legislation also looks ahead to the likelihood of automatic spending cuts, asking the Pentagon for a detailed report on the impact of the reductions.

Overall, the bill authorizes money for weapons, ships, aircraft and a 1.7 percent pay raise for military personnel.

The committee extended, for one year, the divisive provisions on the handling of suspected terrorists that snagged the legislation last year. The defense bill that Obama signed into law Dec. 31, 2011, would deny terror suspects, including U.S. citizens seized within the nation's borders, the right to trial and subject them to indefinite detention. It also would require military custody for foreign terrorist suspects linked to al-Qaida or its affiliates and involved in plotting against or attacking the United States.

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