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Clinton must weigh whether to veto popular defense bill

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- With only five dissents, the Senate voted
final approval Wednesday of a $288.9 billion defense bill that
would overhaul the Energy Department and tighten security at
nuclear weapons labs. It also contains the biggest military pay
raise since the early 1980s.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, viewing the energy
reorganization as congressional overreaction to allegations of
Chinese nuclear spying, has suggested a veto.

But other administration officials said such a veto could be a
problem, given the 4.8 percent across-the-board pay raise and other
politically popular military readiness increases embedded in the
huge bill.

"There're obviously things in the bill that we like -- the pay
raise, some readiness things," said White House spokesman Joe
Lockhart. "So we're going to look at this; and when we have a
decision, we'll let you know."

In any event, margins of passage in both House and Senate were
far above the two-thirds needed to override a veto. Wednesday's
Senate vote was 93-5. The House approved the measure 375-45 last
week.

The legislation would set up a separate, semiautonomous agency
within the Energy Department -- the National Nuclear Security
Administration -- to oversee the government's nuclear weapons
program.

Critics said it would undermine the authority of the energy
secretary.

It is the first overhaul of the Cabinet agency since it was
created 22 years ago during a time of long gasoline lines and other
energy shortages prompted by an Arab oil embargo. The department at
that time also became custodian of the government's three nuclear
labs.

The 4.8 percent pay raise, which would take effect next Jan. 1
for the nation's 1.4 million active-duty military, is 0.4
percentage points higher than a military pay increase President
Clinton proposed in the fiscal 2000 budget.

The bill also improves pension programs and increases retention
benefits in an effort to help the Pentagon ease severe problems in
recruitment and re-enlistment. Overall, the bill earmarks $8.3
billion more in spending for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1
than Clinton had recommended.

The measure "would do more for our men and women in uniform
than any other bill considered by Congress in at least a decade,"
said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed
Services Committee.

Levin agreed with criticism that the bill could undermine
efforts by Richardson to manage nuclear research programs.

Still, Levin added, "I believe that a strong secretary of
energy may be able to overcome these difficulties and address the
department's problems in an effective manner."

Richardson plans to meet with Clinton to discuss shortcomings in
the bill, said Energy Department spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.

"Congress had the right idea, it passed the wrong
reorganization plan," she said. "This proposal damages
environmental protection, threatens worker health and safety and
jeopardizes national security and counterintelligence reforms."

But Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a sponsor of the reorganization,
said the change would enhance national security, not blur lines of
responsibility.

Domenici said Clinton should sign it "so we can soon look back
on this day and say we finally did something to move DOE and our
national security in the right direction."

The reorganization plan grows from months of controversy about
lax security at the Energy Department and the alleged theft by
China of nuclear warhead secrets from U.S. weapons labs, dating
back 20 years.

Supporters of the measure say the new agency would streamline
control over nuclear weapons programs and provide increased
accountability for security and counterintelligence.

Richardson has argued the new agency would be given too much
autonomy and would interfere in security and counterintelligence
improvements he already has made in response to Chinese espionage
concerns.

Voting against the defense bill were Sens. Barbara Boxer,
D-Calif.; Russ Feingold, D-Wis.; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Hebert Kohl,
D-Wis.; and Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., did not vote. Sen. Slade Gorton,
D-Wash., voted "present."



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