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US Congress approves 401b dollars for military spending
( 2003-11-13 11:42) (Agencies)

The U.S. Congress approved a 401 billion dollar defense bill for the 2004 fiscal year, increasing military spending by some eight billion dollars over current levels.

The Senate gave final approval to the measure in a vote of 95 to 3.

The bill increases military pay by slightly more than four percent and would fully fund several programs in U.S. President George W. Bush's "war on terrorism."

The legislation includes 1.3 billion dollars for chemical and biological defense programs and 9.1 billion dollars for ballistic missile defense in fiscal year 2004 -- an increase of 17 percent over the current budget year.

The bill gives U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld broad latitude to reshape the U.S. Pentagon's civilian personnel system, giving supervisors greater flexibility to hire, fire and transfer workers.

The legislation also cleared the way for the research into previously-banned low-yield nuclear weapons, although it would continue to prohibit the development and production of such weapons.

The bill also sets aside 15 million dollars for a feasibility study into "bunker busters" -- battlefield nuclear weapons capable of destroying hardened, underground targets.

The House approved the bill earlier this month, by a vote of 362 to 40.

Just three senators voted against the measure: Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, both Democrats, and Jim Jeffords of Vermont, an independent.

Jeffords said that while he found much to like in the bill, he opposed its relaxation of environmental regulations on the Pentagon.

He was particularly dismayed that the legislation exempts the Defense Department from provisions of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has dramatically protected the diversity of our nation's natural environment," Jeffords said on the floor of the Senate Wednesday.

"National security is more tightly tied to environmental security than many in the Pentagon would acknowledge."

For his part, Byrd said he was opposed to spiraling defense spending at a time of swollen budget deficits. He said the bill fails to force the Pentagon to modernize U.S. defense forces to deal with modern, assymetrical challenges.

"The regular defense budget, not including the costs of the war on terrorism or the war in Iraq, has gone up by 31 percent since 2000," Byrd said on the Senate floor.

"Instead of holding the feet of the Secretary of Defense to the fire so that he may decide which weapons systems are no longer needed for our 21st century defense strategy, Congress gives the Secretary vast new powers to hire and fire workers as he sees fit," the West Virginia Democrat said.

The 2004 Defense Authorization Bill, Byrd concluded, "transfers vast, unchecked powers to the Defense Department while avoiding any break with the business-as-usual approach to increasing defense spending."

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