House passes defense spending bill; votes down amendment requiring vote on new war powers

The House on Thursday approved a $579 billion defense spending bill that offers a slight pay raise to U.S. troops, but reflects deep divisions on budget priorities and whether President Barack Obama needs new war powers to fight Islamic State militants.

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The vote was 278 to 149 in favor of the bill, which drew stiff opposition from Democrats because it uses a war-fighting account to raise defense spending next year.

The measure gives President Barack Obama roughly all the money he requested for defense, but does so by hiking the war-fighting account — which is not subject to congressional spending caps — by almost $40 billion. The president says he will veto spending bills that do not deal with the arbitrary spending limits and treat defense and non-defense expenditures equally.

"This is a strong defense bill that provides our troops with the resources they need and the raise they have earned," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "It reflects the reality of a dangerous world, including resources to combat cyberattacks."

He noted that only 43 Democrats voted for the bill.

"This is part of Democrats' scheme to oppose anything and everything — even a pay raise for our troops — in order to extract more money for the IRS and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)," he said. "Democrats are playing a dangerous and selfish game with our national security."

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House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Democrats strongly support national defense, but want the spending caps lifted. They oppose using the emergency war-fighting account because it gives the military money for only one year. "The defense appropriation bill is bad budgeting and harmful to military planning — perpetuating uncertainty and instability in the defense budget, and damaging the military's ability to plan and prepare for the future," she said.

Before the final vote, the House rejected an amendment to force lawmakers to vote by the end of March on new war powers to fight Islamic State militants.

The vote was 231-196 against the amendment, a vote that underscored the lack of political will in both the House and Senate on the bitterly disputed issue.

Introduced by Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, the measure would have required Congress to debate and vote on a new authorization for the use of military force by March 31. The amendment called for banning the use of funds in the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria unless Congress passed a new authorization.

"Ten months into an undeclared war against ISIS, Congress yet again dodged its responsibility to authorize the use of force," Schiff said after the vote. "While our pilots and special forces risk it all, Congress refuses to do its job. Congressional abdication of our responsibility to declare war, or to deny authorization for war, sets a terrible precedent and shifts war-making powers substantially and inexorably towards the executive" branch.

On Wednesday, Obama ordered the deployment of up to 450 more American troops to Iraq in an effort to reverse major battlefield losses to the Islamic State, an escalation but not a significant shift in the struggling U.S. strategy to defeat the extremist group. Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, and Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, are pushing for a new authorization for the use of military force in the fight against IS.

The defense bill itself enjoyed bipartisan backing when separated from the broader budget debate. The measure provides $8.4 billion for 65 next generation F-35 fighter aircraft, eight more than requested by the Pentagon, as well as $16.9 billion toward nine new Navy ships. It also prevents the retirement of the A-10 aircraft that protects ground troops. Men and women in uniform would get a 2.3 percent pay hike, a percentage point higher than requested by Obama.

The defense measure also boosts funding for procurement of National Guard equipment well above the Pentagon's request, drawing a protest from the administration, and would also block the transfer of Apache helicopters from the Army National Guard to the regular Army.

The companion Senate version of the bill easily advanced through the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday morning but faces a filibuster next week as Democrats seek to force Republicans to the negotiating table to boost domestic accounts.

The Senate bill contains even more money for F-35 fighters and shipbuilding and $330 million more than requested by the Pentagon for Israeli missile defense systems.