House, Senate negotiators seal deal on Defense spending measure

House-Senate negotiators Tuesday approved a $471 billion fiscal 2008 Defense spending bill without additional Iraq war funding except for $11.6 billion in emergency money to purchase mine-resistant vehicles. A continuing resolution providing stopgap funding for all other agencies through Dec. 14 is included in the conference report, which adds $6.4 billion more for domestic spending.

The current CR extends last year's $70 billion "bridge fund" for overseas military operations, but that funding would cease once the Defense spending bill is enacted. Democratic leaders are expected to bring up a separate bridge fund bill Thursday in the House providing "less than $50 billion," along with language intended to force a policy change in Iraq, said House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa. Murtha and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., did not rule out including deadlines for withdrawing troops from combat zones, which would likely lead to a veto by President Bush.

"The vast majority of Americans are pleading to Congress for a change of direction in Iraq," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who said that "it is my hope that such legislation will be debated in the House and Senate very soon."

Murtha said Democrats did not include bridge funding with strings attached in the underlying Defense bill because that would slow the measure.

The move drew GOP protests. Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, offered an amendment to attach $70 billion in bridge funding without restrictions. He said that absent additional funding this year, the Army would run out of money in January.

"I do believe the Congress would break the Army if it refuses to provide the money the Army needs now," Stevens said. "You're not going home as long as I'm here without a bridge fund." His amendment failed on a party-line vote.

Democrats attached the $6.4 billion for domestic items to the new CR. After an intense lobbying effort by Louisiana officials and visits to the Gulf Coast by House Majority Whip James Clyburn and other top Democrats, negotiators included $3 billion to alleviate a shortfall in the "Road Home" program to aid Louisiana homeowners who were hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They also included $2.9 billion to replenish FEMA disaster relief accounts that were tapped for previous hurricane aid and $500 million to help respond to the recent California wildfires.

The CR also contains unrelated policy provisions. Based on an OMB request, it would extend authority for the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board to fund foreign market development. It would also provide a higher rate of spending for the Census Bureau to accommodate preparations for the 2010 census; provide a payment to heirs of the late Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., and extend an expired provision of a law limiting airlines' liability for claims arising from acts of terrorism. And perhaps acknowledging that veterans funding may not be signed into law before Congress adjourns next week, it would allow a higher rate of VA funding than contained in last year's appropriations bill.

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