House OKs defense bill with base closings, pay raises, money for missile defense

Thursday, December 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The House overcame its objections to base closings to give final passage to a massive $343.3 billion defense authorization bill Thursday.

The bill includes pay raises for all service members, an increase in anti-terrorism funds and full funding of President Bush's prized missile defense efforts, for which he is pulling out of a 29-year-old arms control treaty with Russia.

The vote was 382-40.

The bill authorizes spending by the Defense Department and military efforts of the Energy Department for the budget year that began Oct. 2. It contains a $33 billion increase over 2001 spending, up 10.6 percent.

The House Armed Services Committee chairman, Rep. Bob Stump, R-Ariz., said the bill ``represents the ultimate compromise because it has something in it to disappoint virtually everyone involved,'' noting that he was among those who opposed base closings.

At the same time, he told the House, it meets the goal of ``protecting the welfare of our fighting men and women during at this time of crisis and providing the president and secretary of defense the needed tools to accomplish their difficult mission.''

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pressed hard for a base-closings round in 2003, and said he would recommend that Bush veto the bill unless that was included, saying expected savings of $3 billion or more a year were needed for essential military activities.

The Senate approved that plan, but House hostility to another round of base closings delayed passage by a month. Lawmakers were skeptical about touted savings and opposed shutdowns while the nation is both at war and mired in an economic slump.

Ultimately, leaders of the House Armed Services Committee came up with a compromise moving the round back to 2005, when the economy might be recovering, and the war against terrorism might be over.

It was unclear if the administration accepts the 2005 round.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke, asked if Rumsfeld might still recommend a veto over it, said Wednesday: ``I can say they're working hard on the issue right now.''

The bill contains important programs for service members, including minimum 5 percent across-the-board pay raises, with up to 10 percent increases for some, effective Jan. 1, which Stump called ``the most generous pay raise in 20 years.'' It also has new housing benefits; more help with moving expenses and a big boost in construction spending including improvements to family housing.

Bush would get his full $8.3 billion request for missile defense research and development, a $3.1 billion increase over 2001. Of the total, the president could use $1.3 billion for anti-terrorism efforts instead if he wants.

The defense bill also includes another $7 billion for anti-terrorism spending, a $1 billion increase from 2001.

Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, noted that the bill also focuses on homeland security, with $2.7 billion to train and equipment local first responders.

Regarding base closings, the president, in consultation with congressional leaders, would appoint the nine-member base closing commission in March 2005. That May, the defense secretary would submit a list of facilities to be closed.

It would take seven members to add a facility to that list, but just a simple majority to remove one. The president could approve that list and send it to Congress, or reject it and send it back to the commission. Neither Congress nor the president could make changes to the list.

Previous closing rounds _ in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 _ led to closure or realignment of 451 installations, including 97 major ones.

As the administration requested, the negotiators canceled the January referendum in Vieques on future use of that Puerto Rican island for military training. Anti-Navy protests broke out after off-target bombs killed a civilian guard in 1999. Bush has promised to end the maneuvers by 2003.

The bill would bar the Navy secretary from closing it until he and the top military leaders of the Navy and Marine Corps certify a site or sites providing ``equivalent or superior'' levels of training will be available.