Sunday, September 13, 2009

Senate Panel OKs $128 Billion For Afghanistan, Iraq Wars

Senate Panel OKs $128 Billion For Afghanistan, Iraq Wars

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With hardly any debate, a powerful Senate committee Thursday approved President Barack Obama's $128 billion request for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the budget year beginning in October.

The move came as anxiety is increasing on Capitol Hill over the chances for success in Afghanistan and as Obama weighs whether to send more forces to the country.

The war funding was approved as the Appropriations Committee voted unanimously for a $636 billion spending measure funding next year's Pentagon budget. The war funding would implement Obama's order earlier this year to add 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, which would bring the total number of U.S. forces there to 68,000 by the end of 2009.

There's ample skepticism in Congress that Obama's Iraq and Afghanistan funding request will be sufficient. A key lawmaker, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., predicts that an additional war funding will be needed next spring.

Senate panel chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, would not say whether he believes $128 billion would be enough for military operations in the two countries.

"Well, we're taking the word of the administration," Inouye said after the panel session.

The panel also generally followed Obama's recommendations to kill or cut several weapons systems, including the F-22 air-to-air combat fighter and the VH-71 replacement helicopter for an aging presidential transport fleet.

Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have staked their prestige on killing several over-budget weapons systems, especially the F-22, which has its origins in the Cold War era and is poorly suited for anti-insurgent battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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But in twin victories for the Boeing Co., the Senate measure includes $2.5 billion to fund 10 C-17 cargo planes assembled in Long Beach, Calif., which were not requested, and $512 million for nine more F-18 Navy fighters than Obama requested. They would be assembled in St. Louis, Mo.

The additional funding for Iraq and Afghanistan brings to $1 trillion-plus the amount of money set aside by Congress for those wars and other terrorism-fighting efforts since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The bill would cut $900 million from Obama's request for Afghan security forces, though the $6.6 billion provided still represents a 17 percent increase over current spending. Inouye says the Pentagon acknowledges the full budget request wouldn't be spent in the coming year and instead devoted the $900 million to bomb- and mine-resistant vehicles.

The bill also strongly rejects Obama's $100 million request for the Pentagon to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. It also contains stiff language that blocks any transfer, release or incarceration in the United States of any detainees held at the prison in Cuba. That's stronger than current restrictions, which allow transfer into the United States to stand trial.

Inouye also went along – for now – with administration's effort to kill a program to develop an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's major new weapons system. The second engine is funded by a companion House bill and would be built by the General Electric Co. and Rolls-Royce in Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere. The main F-35 engine is built in Connecticut by Pratt & Whitney.

Inouye has been a strong supporter of the second engine, and proponents are confident he will work to revive its funding during House-Senate talks.

The measure also contains $20 million for the development of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate on the campus of the University of Massachusetts-Boston; the funding was inserted by Inouye at the request of John Kerry, D-Mass.

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