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House Armed Services Committee Passes $642 Billion Defense Bill, Ignores Pentagon's Cost-Saving Request

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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta slammed a House panel on Thursday for adding billions of dollars to President Barack Obama's defense budget, including money for a new East Coast missile defense site that the military says is unnecessary.

Just hours after the House Armed Services Committee approved its $642 billion spending blueprint, Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the panel's additions ignored the careful strategic review that was the basis for the 2013 budget proposal. They warned that if the Pentagon is prevented from retiring aging ships and aircraft or reducing the size of the force, it might have to cut training or equipment.

"If members try to restore their favorite programs without regard to an overall strategy, the cuts will have to come from areas that could impact overall readiness." Panetta told reporters. "There is no free lunch here. Every dollar that is added will have to be offset by cuts in national security."

The bill's total is $8 billion more than what Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to last summer in a deficit-cutting agreement. The spending blueprint outlines a base defense budget of $554 billion, including nuclear weapons spending, plus $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts. Obama had proposed $551 billion, plus $88 billion. The panel voted 56-5 for the measure early Thursday morning after more than 15 hours of bitter, partisan debate.

The committee backed the new missile defense site, rejected the Pentagon's call for a cost-saving round of domestic base closures and turned aside the Navy's plans to retire three of four cruisers. It opposed new increases in health care fees for working-age military retirees even though the Pentagon says health care costs have become prohibitively expensive. It also rejected the Air Force's plan to mothball 18 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft.

Citing potential threats from Iran and North Korea, the committee added $100 million to study three possible sites for a missile defense system on the East Coast and complete it by the end of 2015. At the same time, the panel voted for additional funds for the West Coast missile defense site that is $30 billion and counting.

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.

Asked specifically about the new missile defense site, Dempsey told reporters "the program of record for ballistic missile defense for the homeland, as we've submitted it, is adequate and sufficient to the task. And that's a suite of ground-based and sea-based interceptors. So I don't see a need beyond what we've submitted in the last budget."

Republicans insist the additional money is critical because Obama is short-changing the military in the face of growing worldwide threats. The election-year salvo runs smack into polls showing solid approval ratings for Obama on national security. Democrats challenged the increased defense spending as inconsistent with repeated demands to slash the trillion dollar-plus deficit.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the committee, said the bill restores "fiscal sanity to a defense budget that is inconsistent with the threats America faces." McKeon was one of several lawmakers on the committee who had voted for the deficit-cutting pact that envisions a reduction of $487 billion in projected defense spending over 10 years.

Panetta, who was on Capitol Hill on Thursday meeting with lawmakers, said he was concerned that if Congress "now tries to reverse many of the tough decisions that we reached by adding several billion dollars to the president's budget request, then they risk not only potential gridlock" but they also could "force the kind of trade-offs that could jeopardize our national defense."

The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, pointed out that the administration had based its budget on a strategic review of the threats to the nation. The committee, he said, simply dealt with the budget issue by issue and failed to come up with offsetting cuts to its changes.

"There really wasn't anything offered to say here's where we are going to save money," Smith said.

The House is expected to pass the bill next week, but several provisions and the overall amount stand little chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The Senate Armed Services Committee likely will craft a bill at a far lower amount, even below what Obama and Congress agreed to last summer.

The final number "will not and should not be this high," said Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., a member of the House committee. "This is sort of the exhibition season."

Said John Isaacs, executive director of Council for a Livable World and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation: "They're playing with kind of funny money."

The bill suggests that the president should maintain a force of 68,000 in Afghanistan through 2014. Smith is expected to try to change that next week with a measure pushing for an accelerated timetable for withdrawing American forces.

An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday showed that support for the war has hit a new low and is on par with support for the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. Only 27 percent of Americans say they back the war effort, and 66 percent oppose it, according to the survey.

The same poll showed 64 percent approval for Obama's handling of terrorism issues and 31 percent disapproval as the Democrat, in previous polls, has gotten high marks as an effective commander in chief.

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Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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