Associated Press - May 10, 2012, By Robert Burns
WASHINGTON -- The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday soundly rejected the Pentagon's call for military base closings to cut costs as lawmakers worked on a defense budget that adds billions to President Barack Obama's spending proposal.
The committee fleshed out a blueprint 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 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, GOP Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, said the legislation represents a "modest" increase over the administration's proposal and "actively rebuilds the military within the constrained resources available to us."
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, 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, an approach it calls 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.
"We are convinced that it would result in hollowing-out the force and inflicting severe damage to our national defense," Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February.
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.
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