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Monday 26 September 2016

US lower house approves £415 billion defence bill

Published 19/05/2016 | 05:21

The bill was approved by 277 votes to147
The bill was approved by 277 votes to147

America's Republican-led House of Representatives has approved a 602 billion-dollar (£415bn) defence bill, after rejecting attempts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba and revoke anti-terror powers President Barack Obama uses to fight Islamic State.

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The legislation, which authorises military spending for the fiscal year beginning on October 1, seeks to halt a decline in the combat readiness of US armed forces by buying more weapons and forbidding further cuts in troop levels.

But in a 17-page statement on the policy bill, the White House detailed its opposition to numerous provisions and said Mr Obama would veto the legislation if it reached his desk.

The bill, approved 277-147, must be reconciled with a version the Senate is expected to consider by the end of the month.

Republicans shot down an amendment by Democrat Jerrold Nadler to strike parts of the bill that renew a long-standing ban on moving Guantanamo detainees to the United States.

The embargo has kept Mr Obama from fulfilling a campaign pledge to shut the facility. The White House said the restrictions interfered with the executive branch's authority to decide when and where to prosecute prisoners.

The House soundly defeated an amendment by California Democrat Barbara Lee to revoke a 2001 authorisation Congress gave President George Bush to attack any countries or groups involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr Obama is relying on that nearly 15-year-old authority to send US troops into combat against IS but Ms Lee said it was long past time for Congress to grant new war powers that specifically approved the nearly two-year-old campaign.

"I am extremely disappointed that my colleagues left a blank cheque for endless war on the books," she said.

But opponents of her amendment said no new authorisation should be granted until Mr Obama produced a coherent strategy for defeating the extremist group.

Republican Ed Royce, chairman of the House foreign affairs committee, said Mr Obama had all the authority he needs and Ms Lee's amendment would "unilaterally end the fight" against IS.

The bill included a provision that Democrats said would overturn an executive order issued by Mr Obama that bars discrimination against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) employees by government contractors.

Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the armed services committee, called the measure "taxpayer-funded discrimination against LGBT individuals" and cited it as one the reasons he refused to support the bill.

But Republicans said the measure was primarily a restatement of part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Mr Smith also said Republicans used a "procedural trick" to strip a provision that would have be required women to sign up for a potential military draft. They replaced it with a measure to study whether the Selective Service is even needed at a time when the armed forces get plenty of qualified volunteers, making the possibility of a draft remote.

The Obama administration objected to a Republican plan to shift 18 billion dollars (£12.4bn) in wartime spending to add additional ships, jet fighters, helicopters and other equipment the Pentagon did not request.

To make up for the shortfall in the wartime account, Mr Obama's successor would submit a supplemental budget to Congress in early 2017, according to Mac Thornberry, the plan's architect.

He and other proponents of the spending increase say it is essential to halt a decline in the military's ability to respond to global threats, which, they say, has worsened on Mr Obama's watch.

But defence secretary Ash Carter has called the strategy a "road to nowhere" that actually degrades combat readiness by retaining troops and buying equipment that cannot be sustained, effectively creating a hollowed-out force.

In a speech on Tuesday, he said Mr Thornberry's plan "risks stability and gambles with war funding, jeopardises readiness, and rejects key judgments of the (defence) department."

The House bill would block reductions in the number of active-duty troops by prohibiting the army from falling below 480,000 active-duty soldiers and by adding 7,000 service members to the air force and marine corps. The legislation also approves a 2.1% pay rise for the troops - a half-percentage point higher than the Pentagon asked for in its budget submission.

The bill also includes a provision authored by Mr Thornberry to curb what Republicans say is micro-management of military operations by National Security Council staff.

Mr Thornberry said he has personally heard from troops in combat who have received intimidating calls from junior White House staffers even though their role is to co-ordinate policy and advise the president.

To increase oversight and accountability, Senate confirmation of the president's national security adviser would be required if the size of the National Security Council staff exceeds 100 employees, according to the bill.

Press Association

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