US Senate passes $91.3 billion war funding bill
WASHINGTON: The Senate on Thursday passed a $91.3 billion military spending bill, shorn of money President Barack Obama wants to close the Guantanamo Bay prison but allowing him to significantly ramp up the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
The Senate voted 86-3 to pass the bill, which provides money for military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, setting up House-Senate talks on a compromise measure to present to Obama next month.
The spending measure closely tracks Obama's request for war funds, although the $80 million he was seeking to close the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was dropped Wednesday.
A three-day Senate debate on the bill featured little of the angst over the situation in Afghanistan that permeated debate in the House last week on companion legislation.
Obama is sending more than 20,000 additional troops there and, for the first time next year, the annual cost of the war in Afghanistan is projected to exceed the cost of fighting in Iraq.
With support forces, the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is expected to be about 68,000 by the end of the year — more than double the size of the U.S. force at the end of 2008.
Among the few cautionary voices was Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
"I want to give this administration ... the resources it needs to successfully end these wars," Boxer said. "I don't support an open-ended commitment of American troops to Afghanistan. And if we do not see measurable progress, we must reconsider our engagement and strategy there."
Debate pretty much fizzled after Democrats retreated and moved to delete from the bill money to close Guantanamo, where about 240 terrorism suspects still are held. The companion House bill had already taken that step.
The underlying war funding measure has gotten relatively little attention, even though it would boost total approved spending for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars above $900 billion.
The Pentagon would receive $73 billion under the legislation, including $4.6 billion to train and equip Afghan and Iraqi security forces; $400 million to train and equip Pakistan's security forces, and $21.9 billion to procure new mine-resistant vehicles, aircraft, weapons and ammunition, among other items.
The House version adds $11.8 billion to Obama's request, including almost $4 billion for new weapons and military equipment such as eight C-17 cargo planes, mine-resistant vehicles, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Stryker armored vehicles. The House measure also adds $2.2 billion to Obama's request for foreign aid, much of which appears to be designed to get around spending limits for 2010.
The Senate measure contains less for weapons procurement and foreign aid, setting up potentially nettlesome negotiations.
The Senate the floor was often empty Thursday as senators wrestled privately over what final add-ons would make it into the bill.
In the end, several amendments were added, including one by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to block the release under the Freedom of Information Act of government photographs showing the abuse of detainees. The administration is fighting the American Civil Liberties Union in federal court over the release of the photos, and the move was intended to bolster the government's legal position.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., won approval Thursday of an amendment requiring the president to set forth U.S. objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan and issue quarterly reports detailing whether those goals were being met.
The Senate bill includes $1.5 billion as cautionary funding to fight a possible flu pandemic, including the current outbreak of H1N1 swine flu.
The bill also contains $350 million for various security programs along the U.S.-Mexico border. But the money would not be awarded to the Pentagon, as Obama requested.
By a 64-30 vote earlier Thursday, the Senate rejected an amendment by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to kill a proposed $100 billion line of credit for the IMF to shore up the ability of countries around the globe cope with financial crises, along with $8 billion for existing commitments.
DeMint earned a bipartisan rebuke from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., along with Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who said the IMF funding was critical to avoiding financial instability in the world that could harm the U.S. economy.
"The fact is that if those emerging markets start to fade, not only do we lose the economic upside of those markets but we also run the risk that governments fail," Kerry said.
Both Kerry and Gregg said the true cost to taxpayers would be small, since the U.S. government is given interest-bearing assets in return and has never lost money on investments in the IMF. They said even the $5 billion cost estimate by the Congressional Budget Office was too high.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said again Thursday that he's "very, very reluctant" to support any additional IMF since European countries have been slow to take deficit-financed steps to stimulate their economies.