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Senate appropriators approve Defense spending measure

Committee members honor request to keep the bill free of any Iraq funding or policy provisions.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday quickly and unanimously approved a fiscal 2008 Defense spending bill, in the hope of sending the $459.3 billion measure to the floor later this month.

During the markup, committee members honored a request by Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, to keep the bill free of any Iraq funding or policy provisions. Inouye said the committee will address those issues sometime in October, when the panel considers the supplemental spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The war bill ultimately could top $200 billion, once President Bush sends an anticipated $50 billion request for more funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan next year.

With the Appropriations panel's decision to put off the Iraq debate to next month, the base spending bill drew little dissent and no substantial amendments from committee members. But Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., expressed concern that the bill does not include war funding and urged Democrats to act quickly on both the fiscal 2008 Defense bill and the supplemental measure.

"These issues are too important to the security of our country to risk protracted delay," Cochran said.

Inouye stressed that debate on the war funding is too important to be lumped in with the consideration of the annual Defense spending bill. But Inouye also acknowledged that only three weeks remain before the start of the new fiscal year, a fact that makes it "important that we expedite" consideration of the base defense bill.

The Defense bill, which is $3.8 billion below the Pentagon's request and $300 million below the House-passed version, slashes $910 million from construction of the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship, a troubled program that has experienced dramatic cost growth and schedule delays. The LCS cut is far larger than one approved by the House and also rescinds $300 million in fiscal 2007 funding for the program, a move that would essentially cancel construction of a fourth ship.

As a whole, the committee took a hard line on shipbuilding programs, citing a record of schedule slips and cost overruns on many major programs in the report on the bill. But the panel did approve a $470 million add to the Virginia-class submarine program, which could allow the Navy to begin producing two submarines two years earlier than planned.

Appropriators also agreed to trim $310 million from the Pentagon's request for the missile defense program, including an $85 million cut for a proposed European missile defense site. But the appropriations panel approved the full $3.7 billion request for the Future Combat Systems, the Army's high-tech modernization program which Inouye on Wednesday called the service's "highest priority."

The House's version of the bill cut $406 million from the program. Meanwhile, the senators agreed to boost defense health accounts by $948.9 billion and approved a 3.5 percent pay raise for military personnel, a half-percent higher than requested by the Bush administration.