House panel targets no-bid contracts for Iraq reconstruction

As the House Armed Services Committee continued its marathon markup of a new Defense authorization bill into the night Wednesday, it passed a bundle of amendments including one requiring federal agencies to explain and justify decisions to award no-bid contracts for reconstruction projects in Iraq.

The amendment by Rep. Vic Synder, D-Ark., came during the second day of a grueling markup of by the full committee of the fiscal year 2004 Defense authorization bill (H.R. 1588). The bundle of provisions, adopted without controversy as part of a manager's amendment, included the requirement that agencies using no-bid contracts to publish a rationale in the Federal Register or Commerce Business Daily within 30 days of any contract decision.

Agencies would be required to describe the amount of money involved, the scope of work, how a contractor was chosen and others sought out. The requirement would be retroactive to any contract signed going back to Oct. 1, 2002. The markup continued late Wednesday night.

Earlier Wednesday, the committee adopted an amendment directing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to appoint a 12-member commission to study the status of U.S. nuclear weapons and policy and to determine the direction of that policy over the next two decades.

The commission proposal was added to a reauthorization bill (H.R. 1588) that already includes the Bush administration's plans to develop low-yield nuclear weapons capable of destroying chemical or biological sites or weapons.

The bill also would require the Energy Department to prepare for resumption of nuclear tests within 18 months of a president's orders. Current law calls for testing within 36 months.

While the amendment's sponsor, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., said the commission would help ensure rational changes in U.S. nuclear policy, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., suggested the panel might also address whether "the time has come to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world."

Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, D-Calif., said the committee should also undertake a long-term review of the country's nuclear arsenal. "We're going to have to develop some new nuclear systems after awhile," he said. "We're going to ultimately have to replace aging weapons."

Some of the most contentious debate during Tuesday's marathon session came as Hunter succeeded in restoring the 2005 round of base closings to the bill. Hunter referred to another part of the debate, the Pentagon's run-ins with the Endangered Species Act, in overturning a vote of the Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee that would have canceled the next round of closings. He said his amendment to restore the closings would protect an endangered species-"Americans who go out and fight and die for freedom."

Even though Hunter was successful, he said language in the amendment that requires officials to keep open bases that might be needed if there is a surge in the need for U.S. troops might result in few or no bases being closed in the next round. Committee Republicans turned back an attempt by Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., to delay the next round of decisions until 2007.

Democrats railed against several provisions of the authorization bill, saying Congress was giving away its oversight authority to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush. Hunter argued that killing the base-closing round would cause Bush to veto the bill and would make the committee irrelevant.

That logic didn't appease at least one Democrat, Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii. "What I'm hearing is we have to give away our authority to keep our authority," Abercrombie said. While Rumsfeld is saying "do what I want or else," Abercrombie continued, the committee "is engaged in a fiction here. We're not living up to our responsibilities."

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