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House panels trim missile defense, exceed personnel requests

Subcommittee rejects administration attempt to increase fees for military retirees’ health care.

The House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee agreed unanimously Wednesday to carve $764 million from the Pentagon's $8.9 billion fiscal 2008 budget request for missile defense programs, setting the stage for a battle with Republicans when the full committee marks up the annual defense authorization bill next week.

As part of the overall missile defense cut, the panel's markup of its portion of the authorization bill sliced $160 million from the Pentagon's $310 million proposal for a missile defense site in Eastern Europe.

The cut would prevent the military from doing any construction or other work to prepare a proposed base in Poland for so-called ground-based missile defense interceptors.

Also Wednesday, the Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee voted unanimously to exceed President Bush's budget requests for a pay raise and additional military manpower while rejecting administration attempts to increase fees for military retirees' health care and to cut active military medical services.

The panel backed a military pay raise of 3.5 percent, half a percent higher than Bush's proposal, and authorized increases in total personnel for all four services, with even bigger increases in the Army and Marine Corps than Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates had sought.

During the Strategic Forces Subcommittee markup, Chairwoman Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., raised concerns about the European missile site's price tag, which she estimates could hit $4 billion, including significant infrastructure costs. That amounts to a hefty price for what she says is still an unproven system.

Tauscher also has been concerned the United States is moving forward with the proposal on a bilateral basis -- outside of the NATO framework. There is no NATO consensus on the administration's plan for the site or formal agreements for locating missile-warning radar stations elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Just last week, Gates completed a trip to Poland, Germany and Russia, where he discussed U.S. plans for the site. Russian officials, in particular, have been strongly opposed to creation of a U.S. missile defense site in Europe, arguing that doing so would pose a risk to their national security.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said Wednesday he was disturbed by the depth of the missile defense cuts, and plans to offer amendments during the full committee's markup next week. Franks, a supporter of missile defense, would not comment on amendment language, but said the cut to the European site "dumbfounds" him.

Meanwhile, Strategic Forces Subcommittee ranking member Terry Everett, R-Ala., said he hoped that the money for the site eventually would be restored, particularly if U.S. negotiations with Russia and European countries "produce results."

Despite concerns over some cuts, Everett applauded Tauscher on the markup, which continues a trend within the House and Senate Armed Services committees to shift money from high-risk missile defense programs to more immediate priorities. Last year, lawmakers authorized the Pentagon's full $9.3 billion request for missile defense, but gave near-term programs in the bill higher priority for spending.

In her markup, Tauscher cut $400 million from the Airborne Laser program, $85 million from the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, $80 million from Multiple Kill Vehicle, and $10 million from the proposed Space Test-Bed, all considered either less mature or high-risk programs.

But Tauscher also added money to several programs, including $66 million for efforts on the Aegis sea-based missile defense system and $12 million for additional Patriot PAC-3 missiles.

During the Personnel Subcommittee markup, Chairman Vic Snyder, D-Ark., won approval for authorizing Army personnel strength in fiscal 2008 at 525,400, which he said exceeded Bush's request by 36,000 troops. The authorized strength for the Marine Corps would be 189,000, which Snyder said was 9,000 above Bush's request.

Both Snyder and ranking member John McHugh, R-N.Y., said the biggest challenge was overcoming Bush's proposals to charge some former military personnel higher fees under the TRICARE health plan and to impose "efficiency savings" in military health services. The panel also rejected the proposal to increase pharmacy fees for TRICARE participants.

McHugh said "so-called efficiency wedges can only be described as a cut" and observed that the services' top medical officers said the reduced funding would require cuts in services and closure of some facilities.

The TRICARE fees would have provided $2 billion, and the healthcare "efficiencies" would have cut spending by $212 million, under Bush's budget.

Bush had proposed the TRICARE fee increases last year, saying the cost to participants had not kept pace with inflation. But Congress rejected it.

The panel's mark did not have a dollar figure attached, partly because the panel will have to get money shifted from other parts of the defense budget when the full committee marks up the bill.

"We have every expectation we will get the funding we need," Snyder told reporters.