Senate ends debate on authorization bill, but not on Iraq

The Senate voted 92-3 to approve the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill Monday night, ending weeks of sometimes contentious partisan debate centered largely on the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war.

The measure, which sets Pentagon policy and authorizes funding levels, is devoid of mandated timelines for troop withdrawals and other binding language Democrats had hoped to pass to force changes.

But Senate debate on the Iraq war is far from over, with the chamber beginning work Tuesday on the fiscal 2008 Defense appropriations bill.

The $459.3 billion Pentagon spending measure does not include roughly $200 billion needed to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal 2008. Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., announced Monday that he will make another bid to end the war.

Feingold plans to offer an amendment similar to one he tried to attach to the defense authorization measure, which would have required the Bush administration to withdraw all but a small number of U.S. troops from Iraq by June 30. That language appealed to the Senate's most avid anti-war Democrats but ultimately received only 28 votes -- one fewer than a similar measure attracted in May.

Feingold's renewed push to end the war will put him at odds with the measure's floor manager, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. When the bill was being marked up last month, Inouye said he wanted to keep it free of any Iraq policy provisions.

Feingold asserted in a statement Monday that Iraq is "the most important issue we face and the Senate must address it when we take up the Defense spending bill this week."

Shortly before Monday's vote on the authorization measure, the Senate passed an amendment, 51-44, that includes provisions supporters say are aimed at helping federal employees compete against government contractors for jobs. The amendment also provides guidelines to ensure fair competition before a decision is made to hire a contractor over a federal worker.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., criticized the amendment, arguing that government workers typically win 80 percent of public-private competitions. The language would unnecessarily make public-private competitions too "cumbersome and expensive" for contractors, Thune said.

The amendment would require contractors competing for jobs to provide their employees with the same level of health and retirement benefits that federal employees receive. The language also requires contractors to demonstrate they can save the government 10 percent or $10 million.

As the public debate on the measure focused largely on Iraq, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., worked behind the scenes to gain unanimous approval for nearly 200 amendments.

Among those was an amendment sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., requiring the Bush administration to report to Congress on the role of private security contractors in Iraq. The Senate also approved language offered by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., that authorizes $23.6 billion for the military to buy 15,200 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, which offer better protection against roadside bombs than the military's current fleet of armored Humvees.

The House passed its version of the authorization bill in May and informal conference negotiations between the two chambers could begin later this week, aides said. The House's measure slices $867 million from the Army's Future Combat Systems, about 25 percent of the Pentagon's fiscal 2008 request for the $160 billion program that forms the centerpiece of the service's technology transformation efforts. But the Senate, where lawmakers have largely supported FCS over the years, added $115 million to the program.

Meanwhile, the House authorized $2.4 billion to buy 10 C-17 cargo planes next year, which supporters say are needed to transport the influx of troops expected as the Army and Marine Corps increase their personnel strength. The Senate's bill does not add money for the Boeing Co. aircraft, which has long been the beneficiary of generous congressional add-ons.

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