House, Senate negotiators finalize deal on base closings, pay raise

The armed forces will mothball more bases and thousands of U.S. troops will get a raise under a $343.3 billion defense authorization measure finalized Wednesday by key congressional negotiators.

The agreement, reached by senior members of the House and Senate Armed Services panels and endorsed by most members of a congressional conference, matches the White House defense authorization request. In addition, it authorizes the $21.2 billion in emergency funding proposed to combat terrorism.

"The U.S. military is the most capable fighting force in the world today," said Senate Armed Services Chairman Levin. "This bill ensures it will remain so."

Congress is expected to approve the compromise package in short order, and the President to sign it. Both chambers could approve the conference report by week's end. The House was scheduled to act on the report today.

Conferees settled a number of contentious issues to merge the House and Senate versions of the bill.

House members, for example, conceded another round of base closings. But to seal the deal, senators agreed to delay closures from 2003, as they had proposed, until 2005.

"Would I rather have 2003? You betcha," Levin said. Added Warner, "[2005] is better than no base closure."

Warner and Levin also agreed that it took tremendous "courage" for House Armed Services Chairman Stump and ranking member Ike Skelton, D-Mo., to accept the base-closing deal, since "scarcely a voice" in their caucus supported the proposal.

Levin predicted that the Pentagon would warm to the proposal.

"There's not always immediate rushing to shake hands after a conference," he said.

The legislation calls for a targeted military pay raise next year of 5 to 10 percent, mainly for junior officers.

The bill also authorizes the Navy to cease live military training missions on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques and allows the Navy to close its island facilities after a comparable site is approved. Although the date is not included in the bill, Levin said the Navy has committed itself in writing to stop training exercises by May 2003.

The measure also slices $1.3 billion from missile defense programs, leaving $8.3 billion for the controversial project.

However, in an artful compromise, the bill gives President Bush the authority to spend the $1.3 billion to research the missile defense shield or combat terrorism.

"In a sense, [the bill] restores the money for missile defense," said Senate Armed Services ranking member John Warner, R-Va.

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