WASHINGTON – The Senate overwhelmingly approved a sweeping, $631 billion defense bill Tuesday that sends a clear signal to President Obama to move quickly to get U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan, tightens sanctions on Iran and limits the president’s authority in handling terror suspects.
Ignoring a veto threat, the Senate voted 98-0 for the legislation that authorizes money for weapons, aircraft and ships and provides a 1.7 percent pay raise for military personnel. After a decade of increasing Pentagon budgets, the vote came against the backdrop of significant reductions in projected military spending and the threat of deeper cuts from the looming “fiscal cliff” of automatic spending cuts and tax increases.
The bill reflects the nation’s war-weariness after more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, the messy uncertainty about new threats to U.S. security, and Washington belt-tightening in times of trillion-dollar-plus deficits. Spending solely on the base defense budget has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, but the latest blueprint reins in the projected growth in military dollars.
The bill would provide $526 billion for the base defense budget, $17 billion for defense programs in the Energy Department and about $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan. House and Senate negotiators must reconcile their competing versions of the bill in the next few weeks.
“The major challenge is time,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters after the vote.
Reacting to the relentless violence in Syria, the Senate voted 92-6 to require the Pentagon to report to Congress on the ability of the U.S. military to impose a no-fly zone over Syria.
The amendment specified that it should not be construed as a declaration of war or an authorization to use force.
Last year, Obama and congressional Republicans agreed on nearly $500 billion in defense cuts over 10 years. If the two sides fail in the next month to avert the “fiscal cliff,” the Pentagon would face an additional $55 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts after Jan. 1.
Not far from the Capitol, a coalition of retired military leaders, administration officials and lawmakers pleaded with the president and Congress to address the nation’s debt, calling it the greatest threat to national security. The group of prominent Republicans and Democrats said the United States can spend less on defense while still maintaining its military superiority.
“A strong economy and strong national security are inextricably linked,” said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The administration has threatened to veto the Senate bill, strongly objecting to a provision restricting the president’s authority to transfer terror suspects from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to foreign countries. The provision is in current law.