Pressured to slash government spending, a Senate panel on Thursday unanimously approved a $513 billion bill that freezes the Pentagon budget at this year's amount, slicing some $26 billion from President Barack Obama's request.
On a vote of 30-0, the Senate Appropriations Committee pushed ahead legislation that would provide a 1.6 percent pay raise for military personnel, would trim nearly 600 military programs and would take a significant chunk of $695 million from the troubled Joint Strike Fighter aircraft program. In addition to the overall bill, the measure also would provide nearly $118 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The bill reflects the spending level spelled out in the debt accord reached this past summer by Obama and congressional Republicans amid the clamor in Washington for fiscal belt-tightening and deficit cutting. It stands as the first installment in defense cuts of $350 billion over a decade
The bill is $17 billion less than what the House approved and lawmakers will have to work out the difference. With the start of the next fiscal year just 15 days away, Congress is likely to roll the various spending bills into a single, mammoth measure.
In considering the bill, the committee managed to sidestep two amendments that would have reverberated diplomatically in Istanbul, Moscow and Jerusalem.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., sought to prohibit money for a new early warning radar in southeast Turkey unless the Obama administration could reassure Congress that all data from the system could be used to protect Israel.
The freshman lawmaker insisted on the U.S. siding with Israel in the increasingly hostile showdown between former allies Turkey and Israel. On Thursday, Turkey's prime minister, Recep Erdogan, warned that his country would not sit by and let Israel do as it pleased in the Mediterranean. Erdogan also expressed support for Palestinian efforts to gain statehood recognition at the United States, a move both Israel and the United States strongly oppose.
The ties between Turkey and Israel soured after an Israeli commando raid in June 2010 on a Turkish boat containing pro-Palestinian activists left nine Turkish citizens dead, including one U.S. dual national. Israel refused to apologize.
"After 50 years, the Turks recalled their ambassador, expelled Israel's ambassador and press reports say the Turkish air force has reclassified Israeli aircraft as enemy aircraft," Kirk told the committee. "In the middle of all this, the U.S. placed a radar in Turkey."
The radar is part of NATO's missile defense system designed to counter ballistic missile threats from Turkey's neighbor Iran.
Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said Kirk's amendment was unnecessary since he had received assurances from the administration and the Pentagon that "nothing in the agreement reached with Turkey restricts our ability to assist in the defense of Israel."
Kirk withdrew his amendment but could bring it up when the Senate considers the bill. He urged the administration to address the diplomatic crisis and suggested rethinking Turkey's presence in NATO.
The senator also offered a measure to stop any sharing of missile defense data with Russia, citing its ties with Iran and the possibility that information about the United States' early warning system and timing could be shared with Tehran.
A similar amendment is contained in the defense bill that sets policy. Kirk withdrew his amendment and said he would wait until the Senate considers that bill.
A third issue put off for another day was Sen. Dianne Feinstein's concern about the elimination of money for a third Mobile Landing Platform, a ship that resembles a floating pier. General Dynamics Steel and Shipbuilding Co. in San Diego is building the ships for the Navy, with the first one to be delivered in 2013.
The House version of the spending bill contains money for three ships. Feinstein, D-Calif., said she had received assurances from Inouye that the issue would be resolved as the House and Senate work out differences in the two bills.
The bill trims $5 billion for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and $1.6 billion for training of the Afghan Security Forces that U.S. commanders had identified as an "overstated requirement."
While it comes to hundreds of programs, it also would provide $3.8 billion for military programs that Obama did not request.
Even as the Pentagon faces a freeze and many domestic agencies are dealing with outright cuts, the panel approved increases approaching 20 percent to financial watchdog agencies whose workload is greatly increased by last year's overhaul of the regulation of the financial services industry.
The Securities and Exchange Commission budget would total $1.4 billion, a 19 percent increase. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which oversees the risky trading of complex financial instruments known as derivatives, is budgeted at $240 million, an 18 percent increase.
In a rare display of partisanship, the panel approved the spending measure covering the SEC and the CFTC by a 16-14 party-line vote that reflected Republican displeasure with the divisive financial overhaul law.
Increases for the watchdog agencies came at the expense of agencies like the IRS, which would absorb a 4 percent cut from current levels. NASA would bear a $509 million cut of almost 3 percent that sets its budget back to 2009 levels.
Funding for the federal court system would be frozen, which is likely to force layoffs of court staff, said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
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