WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday 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.
In rancorous, lengthy debate, Republicans insisted that the site is necessary in the event that Iran or North Korea develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of attacking the East Coast. Democrats countered that throwing billions at a missile defense system plagued by failures made no sense, especially when the threat from the two nations was 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.
The committee fleshed out a blueprint for next year that calls for a base defense budget of $554 billion, including nuclear weapons spending, plus $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts. That compares with the administration's proposal of $551 billion, plus $88 billion. The all-day session was expected to stretch into the early morning Thursday as the committee dealt with spending on weapons, troops and various policy issues such as the cost of health care for military retirees.
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.
"I'm frustrated that they (Republican) have directed hundreds of millions of dollars to an unrequired missile defense system that our own military leaders have clearly stated they do not want and cannot even capitalize on at this time, even as Republicans claim the need for fiscal restraint," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., in a statement.
Republicans injected presidential politics into the debate, questioning President Barack Obama's commitment to missile defense. They contended that Obama had cut a secret deal with Russia on missile defense when an open microphone in March caught him telling then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more room to negotiate after the November election. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., scoffed at the "political nonsense" of Republicans' "automatically translating a benign comment on flexibility into a secret deal."
Eight months after the military allowed gays to serve openly – and the same day Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage – the committee backed two amendments limiting the rights of gays and lesbians.
"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.
His amendment, backed by the committee on a 36-25 vote, 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 and may not use this against them in promotions or training.
Sanchez questioned what would happen if a member of the service literally interpreted Leviticus, which considers homosexuality an abomination. That prompted an odd exchange with Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., who argued that was the Old Testament and not part of the Bible.
The committee also backed an amendment that barred same-sex marriages or "marriage-like" ceremonies on military installations. The vote was 37-24.
In a pre-emptive move, the committee backed an amendment by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., prohibiting any spending on implementing an international agreement on activities in space unless the pact has been ratified by the Senate or authorized by law.
The idea of another round of domestic base closings lost by a 44-18 vote. Lawmakers have challenged the savings from previous closings. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had proposed two rounds, but there's no enthusiasm in Congress for that during an election year.
The committee chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said the legislation represents a "modest" increase over the administration's proposal and "actively rebuilds the military within the constrained resources available to us."
Smith said he was pleased that the bill includes new conditions on providing aid to Pakistan. "It is imperative that Pakistan support our counterterrorism efforts," he said.
Election-year maneuvering over the size of the Pentagon budget is unfolding against a backdrop of worries by Republicans and Democrats that the nation's defenses will suffer if lawmakers cannot stave off more than $500 billion in mandatory military spending cuts scheduled to begin taking effect next year.
The military service chiefs, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, have said they support the Obama plan, but some Republicans have suggested they harbor misgivings.
The administration already is selectively cutting $487 billion from the Pentagon budget over 10 years, dictated by the agreement last year between congressional Republicans and Obama on a deficit-cutting plan. The Pentagon has said that approach is prudent in light of shrinking combat commitments abroad and concerns about budget deficits at home.
Panetta has stressed his concern about Congress failing to find a way around the $500 billion in mandatory automatic cuts to the defense budget over 10 years, starting in January, which he said would require a "meat-ax approach" to savings.
The House bill challenges the administration's proposal on several important fronts. One provision would block planned increases in health care fees for certain military retirees. The administration argues that the increases are overdue and the savings needed to preserve spending elsewhere.
The bill also would prohibit the Air Force from retiring certain Air National Guard planes, as called for in the administration's plan. Numerous governors have pushed back hard against the administration's proposed aircraft cuts and reassignments.