House OKs $355 billion defense bill to fight terror

WASHINGTON -- The House overwhelmingly approved on Thursday a compromise $355.4 billion defense bill brimming with money for new destroyers, helicopters and missiles and granting President Bush most of the Pentagon buildup he requested following last year's terrorist attacks.

While the day's spotlight shone on the congressional debate over authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq, the massive defense spending package -- one-sixth of the entire federal budget -- underlined the bipartisan consensus behind beefing up the military. Quick Senate approval was also expected, and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush looks forward to signing the measure into law because it will "ensure that we provide our troops in the field with the resources they need to fight terrorism and defend freedom."

The bill's 409-14 passage, less than four weeks before congressional elections, also reflected a desire by Democrats to head off campaign-season accusations by Bush that they had delayed a measure urgently needed in the U.S. effort against terrorism. Most of Congress' budget work has been stalled because Bush wants to spend less than Democrats and even some Republicans want.

The bill's popularity was also a tribute to the billions it would spend from coast to coast for weapons and other equipment. Included was $3.3 billion for 15 Air Force C-17 transport aircraft -- $586 million more than Bush requested -- which the Boeing Co. has been building in Long Beach, Calif.; and $270 million for 19 Army Blackhawk helicopters -- seven more than Bush sought -- built by the Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. of Stratford, Conn.

As lawmakers sorted through a pile of legislation in hopes of recessing soon for the elections, the House approved a $10.5 billion military construction bill, 419-0.

Staying open

By 272-144, the House also approved a bill keeping federal agencies open for another week, a measure necessitated by the spending battle between Bush and Congress. And on tap was a measure to help state and local governments revamp their voting systems.

For now, all was colored by the Nov. 5 elections, when control of the House and Senate for the next two years will be decided.

Hoping to focus voters on issues that could help Democrats, the party's leaders invited press coverage of a forum they were staging Friday on retirement security, corporate responsibility and whether the economy is on the right track.

To counter that, House Republicans were preparing a tax-cut package that includes bigger breaks for stock market losses and for people trying to rebuild depleted individual retirement accounts and 401(k) plans.

"For the next four weeks there's going to be a lot of debate about the economy," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters. "Once we get this question of Iraq behind us, I think the American people are going to focus even more."

The defense bill, for the federal budget year that started Oct. 1, represents a $34 billion, or 11 percent, increase over last year. Bush sought $367 billion, but ran into bipartisan distaste for his proposal for a $10 billion fund he could tap without congressional input for combating terrorists overseas.

From weapons procurement and research to the costs of training troops, virtually every category of Pentagon spending is being beefed up.