House panel uses war funds to skirt budget limits

AP News
Posted: Jun 02, 2015 4:29 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A GOP-controlled House panel Tuesday approved using $37 billion in unrequested war money to match President Barack Obama's 7 percent budget boost for the military. The move came over the opposition of Democrats and the White House, who argue that domestic programs deserve equal treatment.

The Appropriations Committee action came as it approved a $579 billion Pentagon spending bill that would fund a 2.3 percent pay increase for the military and add new money to boost air reconnaissance.

The bill advances toward a floor debate later this month, even as measures that fund the departments of Commerce, Justice, Transportation as well as Housing and Urban Development are moving ahead this week — headlong into twin administration veto threats issued on Tuesday.

The sweeping Pentagon funding measure typically enjoys widespread support, but this year's version is trapped by a broader budget involving a $1 trillion budget "cap" mandated by the return of automatic spending cuts that are the punishment for Washington's failure to replace them with other deficit-cutting policies. Such so-called sequestration cuts would reduce agency operating budgets by about $90 billion below levels originally called for by a hard-fought 2011 budget accord.

The White House has issued blanket veto threats against spending bills for the budget year beginning in October, demanding additional money for domestic programs. But there's no sign yet of negotiations between the White House and Republicans controlling Congress over ways out of the tangle, which promises to drag on until the fall or later.

"We will be in the throes of another crisis in December — our time should no longer be wasted and the president and the leaders of both houses and both parties ought to start meaningful negotiations now," said Rep. Peter Visclosky of Indiana, top Democrat on the Appropriations' defense subcommittee.

The defense bill itself enjoys bipartisan backing when separated from the broader budget debate. The measure provides $8.4 billion for 65 next generation F-35 fighter aircraft, eight more than requested by the Pentagon, as well as $16.9 billion toward nine new Navy ships. It also prevents the retirement of the A-10 aircraft that protects ground troops. Men and women in uniform would get a 2.3 percent pay hike, a percentage point higher than requested by Obama.

Hours later, the House took up a $51 billion measure funding the departments of Justice and Commerce and science-related agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation. The measure generously funds space programs and provides small increases to law enforcement agencies like the FBI. Democrats protested cuts to Obama's requests for legal aid to the poor, the 2020 census and hiring grants for local police.

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The Justice funding measure is likely to be amended on the floor as early as Wednesday to renew language blocking the government from cracking down on medical marijuana providers in states where medicinal pot is allowed. The House will also vote on whether to allow recreational use as well in states that permit it.

The defense measure also boosts funding for procurement of National Guard equipment well above the Pentagon's request, drawing a protest from the administration, and would also block the transfer of Apache helicopters from the Army National Guard to the regular Army.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., the top lawmaker of the defense panel, was the architect of an additional $500 million for reconnaissance, which he said would ease surveillance shortfalls that are leaving commanders "blind to the enemy's activities, movements and intentions."

The new reconnaissance money will go toward additional aircraft and ground stations, training of pilots, personnel costs and data processing.

"We will be stronger for this additional investment," Frelinghuysen said.