WASHINGTON – Ignoring a White House veto threat, the Republican-controlled House approved a $642 billion defense budget Friday that breaks a deficit-cutting deal with President Barack Obama and restricts his authority in an election-year challenge to the Democratic commander in chief.
The House voted 299-120 for the fiscal 2013 spending blueprint that authorizes money for weapons, aircraft, ships and the war in Afghanistan — $8 billion more than Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to last summer in the clamor for fiscal austerity.
Insisting they are stronger on defense than the president, Republicans crafted a bill that calls for construction of a missile defense site on the East Coast that the military opposes, bars reductions in the nation's nuclear arsenal and reaffirms the indefinite detention without trial of suspected terrorists, even U.S. citizens captured on American soil.
The divisive GOP provisions will have a short shelf life, as the Democratic-controlled Senate is likely to scrap many of them and stick to the spending level in the deficit-cutting agreement.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met privately last week with senators to argue for the president's proposed budget, a blueprint the Pentagon says is based on a new military strategy focused on Asia, the Mideast and cyberspace as the nation emerges from two long wars. The Senate Armed Services Committee crafts its version of the budget next week.
The House bill is not only a political salvo against Obama, who nevertheless gets high marks after the killing of Osama bin Laden and success in the war on terrorism, but a reflection of the stranglehold the defense industry has on Congress. Weapons, aircraft carriers and jet fighters mean jobs back home, and lawmakers are loath to cut funds for the military, the biggest government program outside entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.
In a political shot on the House floor, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, accused Democrats of "taking all of the jobs out of the military."
For the endless Washington talk of dealing with the nation's debilitating debt, the bill outlines a base defense budget of $554 billion, including nuclear weapons spending, plus $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts.
Conservative and tea party Republicans prevailed on a series of amendments Friday, even dealing a blow to the business community and GOP establishment on one measure. Reviving Cold War arguments, they rejected the notion that Senate ratification of an arms control treaty with Russia in December 2010 has long been settled and that the president has the authority to enforce the pact. Their words of warning about Russia echoed those of likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The House soundly backed amendments prohibiting the president from making unilateral reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal and imposing limits on the ability of the administration to cut the stockpile.
"The United States should not wander down the road toward nuclear disarmament because President Obama has pinned his hopes on a belief that other nations will blindly follow our lead," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., sponsor of one of the amendments.
Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming called the U.S.-Russia treaty that was ratified on a 71-26 Senate vote "a terrible deal for the United States."
"This is a mess we are trying to clean up," Lummis said.
Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews of New Jersey failed to sway his colleagues with the argument that careful and deliberate elimination of nuclear weapons has been a bipartisan effort by presidents from Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to George W. Bush and Obama.
In one of the most telling votes about the fractures within the GOP, the House rejected appeals from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the business community, traditional Republican allies, and backed an amendment limiting funds for institutions or organizations established by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The vote was 229-193.
The chamber supports Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty "because it would provide clear legal rights and protections to American businesses to transit, lay undersea cables, and take advantage of the vast natural resources in and under the oceans off the U.S. coasts and around the world," executive vice president R. Bruce Josten said in a statement. He noted that the Defense Department supports the treaty.
Tea party Republicans and other conservatives have expressed concerns about the treaty impinging on U.S. sovereignty.
The detention issue created an unusual political coalition in Congress, uniting Democrats and some tea party Republicans.
Conservatives fear the divisive policy established last year could result in unfettered power for the federal government and trample long-held constitutional rights. The policy, contained in the current defense law, was based on the post-Sept. 11 authorization for the use of military force that allows indefinite detention of enemy combatants. Several Democrats criticized the provision as an example of government overreach and an unnecessary obstacle to the Obama administration's war against terrorism.
The policy denies suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens seized within the nation's borders, the right to trial and subjects them to the possibility they would be held indefinitely.
When Obama signed the bill on Dec. 31, he issued a statement saying he had serious reservations about provisions on the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists. Such signing statements are common and allow presidents to raise constitutional objections to circumvent Congress' intent.
"My administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens," Obama said in the signing statement. "Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation."
In February, the administration outlined new rules on when the FBI, rather than the military, could be allowed to retain custody of al-Qaida terrorism suspects who aren't U.S. citizens but are arrested by federal law enforcement officers. The new procedures spelled out seven circumstances in which the president could place a suspect in FBI, rather than military, custody, including a waiver when it could impede counterterrorism cooperation with another government or when it could interfere with efforts to secure an individual's cooperation or confession.
The House rejected an amendment by Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Justin Amash, R-Mich., that would have barred indefinite detention and rolled back mandatory military custody. The vote was 238-182.
"To give the president the power to take away a person's freedom and lock them up, potentially simply based on allegations, without due process, and without the civil liberties protected by our Constitution, is an extraordinary step," Smith said.
In a face-saving move, the House voted 243-173 Friday for an amendment that reaffirms Americans' constitutional rights.
A Democratic effort to stick to last year's deficit-cutting pact and cut $8 billion from the bill failed Friday on a 252-170 vote.