WASHINGTON (AP) - The House Armed Services Committee on Thursday overwhelmingly backed a $642 billion defense bill that calls for construction of a missile defense site on the East Coast, restores aircraft and ships slated for early retirement and ignores the Pentagon's cost-saving request for another round of domestic base closings.
Despite the clamor for fiscal discipline, the committee crafted a military spending blueprint that's $8 billion more than the level President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to last summer in the deficit-cutting law. The panel vote early Thursday morning was 56-5.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the committee, said in a statement that the legislation meets his goal of "keeping faith with American's men and women in uniform; restoring fiscal sanity to a defense budget that is inconsistent with the threats America faces and rebuilding a force after a decade of war."
The Republican-controlled House is expected to vote on the spending blueprint next week, but the legislation will be significantly changed in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where lawmakers are sticking to the lower spending level.
Over hours of sometimes testy debate, the committee backed construction of a missile defense site on the East Coast, rejecting Pentagon arguments that the facility is unnecessary and Democratic complaints that the nearly $5 billion project amounts to wasteful spending in a time of tight budgets.
Republicans insisted that the site is necessary in the event that Iran or North Korea develops an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of attacking the East Coast. Democrats countered that throwing billions of dollars at a missile defense system plagued by failures made no sense, especially when the threat from the two nations is highly uncertain and many in Washington are demanding fiscal discipline.
This "would be spending up to $5 billion in the next three years on a missile defense system that doesn't work," said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., who offered an amendment to eliminate the project from the GOP-backed bill.
The chief proponent of constructing the site, Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, said, "We need to proceed with missile defense whether this president wants to or not."
On a largely party-line vote, the panel rejected Garamendi's effort, 33-28.
Since the mid-1980s, the Pentagon has spent nearly $150 billion on missile defense programs and envisions another $44 billion over the next five years. But it is not looking to construct a facility on the East Coast.
Gen. Charles Jacoby, the head of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, told Congress earlier this year, "Today's threats do not require an East Coast missile field, and we do not have plans to do so."
The progress of Iranian and North Korean programs remains unclear. The United States and its allies accuse Iran of using its nuclear program to develop atomic weapons. Iran insists it is producing nuclear energy. North Korea suffered a failed rocket launch last month when its Unha-3 rocket broke apart, raising questions about the immediate threat to the United States from a North Korean long-range missile.
Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O'Reilly, the head of the U.S. missile defense program, told Congress recently that North Korea lacks the testing for a capable system and has made little progress in its spaceflight program.
Nevertheless, the committee envisions construction of the site by the end of 2015, with the Pentagon deciding on a possible location. The bill includes $100 million to study three potential sites.
The committee rejected the Pentagon's call to mothball 18 Air Force Global Hawk drones, and it restored four Navy cruisers slated for early retirement in next year's budget.
Eight months after the military allowed gays to serve openly - and on the same day that Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage - the committee backed measures limiting the rights of gays and lesbians.
Conservative Republicans still angry with the end to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military pressed two measures.
"The president has repealed 'don't ask, don't tell' and is using the military as props to promote his gay agenda," said Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., who is running for Senate.
The committee, on a vote of 37-24, backed an amendment that barred same-sex marriages or "marriage-like" ceremonies on military installations. The panel also endorsed an Akin amendment that said the services should accommodate the rights of conscience of members of the services and chaplains who are morally or religiously opposed to expressions of human sexuality.
In an odd exchange, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., questioned what would happen if a service member literally interpreted the Old Testament's Leviticus, which considers homosexuality an abomination. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., disputed her contention that was part of the Bible, saying it was the Old Testament.
"Members of this committee are looking to turn back the clock and find new ways to discriminate against gay and lesbian service members," said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee. "These men and women serve with honor and distinction, and this amendment sends a message that their service is not valued."
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