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House Clears Huge Defense Bill, Sends It To Senate

WASHINGTON (AP) – Bowing to President Bush’s demands, the House has passed and was sending to the Senate a mammoth package for the Pentagon on Wednesday that contains a pay raise for soldiers, billions of dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and some political protection for lawmakers during a tense election season.

The 392-39 vote sent the $612 billion defense authorization bill to the Senate, which was expected to clear it quickly.

To earn President Bush’s signature rather than a veto, House and Senate negotiators dropped several provisions he opposed. They include a ban on private interrogators in U.S. military detention facilities and what would have amounted to congressional veto power over a security pact with Iraq.

Not passing it before Congress adjourns this week was not an option six weeks out from an election in which voters will choose a new president, every seat in the House and a third of the Senate. Democrats made clear early on that any Republican efforts to block the bill would be characterized as disrespect for military personnel.

However, negotiators address objections from some Senate Republicans to $5 billion in pet projects not requested by Bush, called earmarks. In the compromise, the earmarks are listed in a table accompanying the legislation.

“We’re very thankful to have a chance to get the bill passed,” said Rep. Todd Aiken, R-Mo.

A separate bill would have to be passed to spend the money cleared by the authorization bill.

The measure would permit $612.5 billion in spending for national defense programs in 2009, including $68.6 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also includes a 3.9 percent pay increase for military personnel, half a percentage point more than Bush requested.

On Iraq policy, the package requires the Pentagon to report to Congress on the details of certain military agreements between the U.S. and Iraq. It also requires the Pentagon to enumerate Iraq-related items in its budget request.

For military personnel, the legislation provides the raise and extends certain bonuses. It authorizes $3.2 billion for new family housing, tuition assistance and training opportunities for military spouses. Additionally, it permits $25 billion for health care programs and blocks the president’s plan to raise certain medical user fees and deductibles.

It boosts oversight of contracts, requiring a database of defense contractors that have broken the law.

The measure does not contain any statement calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

Election-season politics shadowed the debate and helped dislodge the measure from objections in the Senate.

Several Senate Republicans objected to the bill because they oppose earmarks, but they relented after one of their own drummed up enough support for the bill to clear a test tally.

Retiring Sen. John Warner, R-Va., a former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, implored his colleagues to vote for the bill out of respect for military personnel.

The bill eventually passed the Senate, 88-8.

The measure is S. 3001 as amended.

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By LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press Writer

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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