House approves defense budget that would retain 911th

May 19, 2012
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled House, ignoring a White House veto threat, on Friday approved a $642 billion defense budget that breaks a deficit-cutting deal with President Barack Obama and blocks his administration’s plans to close a local military base.

The House voted 299-120 for the fiscal 2013 plan authorizing spending for weapons, aircraft, ships and the Afghanistan war — a figure $8 billion above what Mr. Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to last summer in the clamor for fiscal austerity.

The bill includes a provision that would stave off closure of the 911th Airlift Wing in Moon and would make it more difficult in the future for the Pentagon to shut down military bases. That amendment was championed by Pennsylvania’s southwest delegation: Republican Rep. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair along with Democratic Reps. Mike Doyle of Forest Hills, Jason Altmire of McCandless and Mark Critz of Johnstown.

Also helping to craft the legislation was Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who is fighting Air Force plans to transfer an F-16 squadron out of his district.

“The 911th is totally safe for a year [if the Senate agrees], and in that year we will be going over the books with a fine-tooth comb, as the Air Force should have done in the first place,” Mr. Murphy said Friday. “It’s going to freeze the changes the Air Force is making” by requiring future base closures to be proposed as part of presidential budgets, which require congressional approval for enactment.
Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., already are working to craft companion legislation in the upper chamber. One provision would require a more thorough financial analysis and a study of potential local impacts before bases can be closed.

The Air Force this winter announced plans to close the Moon base in September 2013 as part of a plan to retire 200 aircraft and eliminate 9,100 positions nationwide.

“I could understand closing a military base in our region if it was truly in the national interest, but the process the Air Force has used to justify closing the 911th has fallen far short of making that case,” Mr. Doyle said Friday.

Mr. Critz, who helped shepherd the amendment, said the legislation also protects his district’s 258th Air Traffic Control Station, which had been slated for staffing reductions.

Another defense bill provision, sponsored by Mr. Altmire, limits charges phone companies can impose on servicemen and women who phone home as they travel through foreign airports to and from deployments overseas.

The bill also 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. Those 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 deficit-cutting agreement.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met last week with senators to argue for the president’s proposed budget, a blueprint the Pentagon says is based on a new strategy focused on Asia, the Mideast and cyberspace as the nation emerges from two wars. The Senate Armed Services Committee crafts its version of the budget next week.

The House bill is not only a political salvo against Mr. Obama 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 such as Medicare and Social Security. In a political shot on the House floor, House Armed Services Committee chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., accused Democrats of “taking all of the jobs out of the military.”

For all the 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. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., called the U.S.-Russia treaty, ratified on a 71-26 Senate vote, “a terrible deal for the United States,” adding, “This is a mess we are trying to clean up.”

Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., failed to sway his colleagues with the argument that careful and deliberate elimination of nuclear arms has been a bipartisan effort by presidents from Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to George W. Bush and Mr. Obama.

In one of the most telling votes about 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.

Tea Party Republicans and other conservatives have expressed concerns about the treaty impinging on U.S. sovereignty.

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