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House pushes to complete $608B defense bill


WASHINGTON (AP) — The House pressed ahead Thursday to complete a $608 billion defense spending bill for next year that adds billions to President Barack Obama's request and breaks a budget deal that Congress backed last year.

The White House has threatened a veto of the spending bill for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. The administration criticized the House for reneging on the spending levels that Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to last August. The bill would provide $519 billion for the Pentagon and another $88.5 billion for the war in Afghanistan, an increase of $1.1 billion over current spending and $3 billion more than Obama requested.

Democrats challenged the bill's spending levels, offering an amendment to return the measure to the levels in the budget deal.

"The bill coming to the floor today is in violation of that bipartisan agreement," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "It's in violation of an understanding that in order to get our fiscal house in order we had to make tough decisions" on spending on defense.

Said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif: "A deal is a deal."

The House was scheduled to vote on that amendment and a series of others later in the day.

The administration has complained that the increase in defense spending would come at the expense of job training, health care, research and education.

"The bill undermines key investments in high-priority programs, impeding the ability of the secretary of defense to carry out the defense strategic guidance issues earlier this year, and hindering the ability of the armed forces to carry out their mission consistent with the new strategy," the administration said in a statement last month.

The House bill blocks the Air Force from retiring or transferring aircraft, including C-27Js, C-23s and a version of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle. It cuts $70 million from the Pentagon's effort to develop biofuels as an alternative to traditional fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil while adding millions for submarines and Navy destroyers that the Pentagon didn't request.

The bill would provide a 1.7 percent pay increase for military personnel, but lawmakers rejected a .5 percent civilian pay raise.

House action on the bill came against the backdrop of a fierce political fight over automatic spending cuts that will kick in Jan. 2 unless Congress comes up with a plan for $1.2 trillion in savings.

Republicans and Democrats are at an impasse over how to avert the across-the-board cuts in domestic and defense programs that they voted for last year. The cuts were the unpalatable last resort if a congressional supercommittee failed to produce a proposal, a possibility that became a reality last November.

Republicans blamed Obama for the stalemate.

"The sequester is happening because the president didn't lead," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Thursday. Stepping up the pressure on Obama, Boehner said the president "hasn't lifted a finger to work with the Congress on jobs or to resolve these issues ... He's just out there campaigning every day and looking for somebody else to blame."

Democrats argue that Republican resistance to raising taxes on high wage earners is blocking any effort to come up with an alternative to the automatic cuts.