House-Senate negotiators Thursday approved a new $70 billion infusion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as they wrapped up talks on a $447 billion Pentagon funding bill.
The additional war funds would bring the total approved by Congress for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, to more than $500 billion, with another installment likely to come next spring.
At the same time, the White House beat back an attempt by Republicans on the appropriations committees to take an additional $2 billion from defense programs to ease cuts to domestic programs such as education and grants to local governments.
The bill would be the first of 11 spending bills to clear Congress for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. With progress so slow on other bills — the homeland security bill is the only other spending measure likely to pass before Congress adjourns next week to campaign for fall elections — the Pentagon measure will also carry a stopgap funding bill to keep open agencies whose funding bills won't have passed.
The defense measure is certain to enjoy sweeping support in Congress despite widespread anxiety about how well the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going. Even opponents of the war tend to support the measure because it supports U.S. troops in harm's way.
"The troops are stretched thin," said Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. "We're not making progress."
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said the $70 billion infusion for Iraq and Afghanistan operations will fund the war "at least until May, but we hope beyond that."
The bill provides for a 2.2 percent pay increase for the military as President Bush requested in his February budget.
The measure would cut about $2 billion from Bush's request for procurement of new weapons systems, providing $81 billion. Almost $11 billion of that would be used to build eight ships, including two DD(X) destroyers. That is significant because it would allow Bath Iron Works in Maine and Northrop Grumman's Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi to build one ship each.
A House-passed defense policy bill had called for only one DD(X) ship, to be built in Mississippi.
The bill also contains good news for lawmakers from California and Missouri, who won a total of 22 C-17 cargo planes, including seven added in end-stage talks. That is expected to keep manufacturing lines open for about an additional year despite the Air Force's wish to end production with the completion of a 180-plane inventory.
The C-17 is built in Long Beach, Calif., but several components are assembled at Boeing's St. Louis-based defense company.
Negotiations on the bill demonstrated the flexibility with which the Congress and the White House treat budget limits set on the Pentagon. The bill was originally supposed to carry $50 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, but that figure jumped after lawmakers heard about rapidly deteriorating Army and Marine Corps readiness caused as equipment has worn out in harsh overseas conditions.
The bill cuts about $4 billion from Mr. Bush's request for core defense programs in order to ease White House cuts to domestic programs. The original Senate bill had proposed a $9 billion shift, provoking a veto threat.
An attempt by House and Senate appropriators to settle on a $5.9 billion transfer to domestic programs was scuttled by the White House and House and Senate GOP leaders. But senators from western states succeeded in preserving $200 million of $275 million added by the Senate to combat wildfires.