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Defying Pentagon, House backs $601 billion defence bill that spares favoured weapons

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WASHINGTON - The House defied the Pentagon on Thursday, overwhelmingly backing a $601 billion defence authorization bill that saves the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane, military bases and Navy cruisers despites warnings that it will undercut military readiness.

A White House veto threat — reiterated just hours before the vote — had little impact in an election year as lawmakers embraced the popular measure that includes a 1.8 per cent pay raise for the troops and adds up to hundreds of thousands of jobs back home. The vote was 325-98 for the legislation, with 216 Republicans and 109 Democrats backing the bill.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services committee that wrote the bill, rejected the suggestion that the measure was a "sop to parochial interests," arguing that the bill makes "the tough decisions that put the troops first."

But the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, complained that the House rejected the Pentagon's cost-saving proposals and came up with no alternatives.

"We ducked every difficult decision," Smith said.

With the ending of two wars and diminishing budgets, the Pentagon had proposed retiring the U-2 and the A-10 Warthog close air support aircraft, taking 11 Navy cruisers out of the normal rotation for modernization and increasing out-of-pocket costs for housing and health care.

Republicans, even tea partiers who came to Congress demanding deep cuts in federal spending, and Democrats rejected the Pentagon budget, sparing the aircraft, ships and troop benefits.

The bill from the Republican-controlled House must be reconciled with the Democratic-led Senate's version.

An increasingly antagonistic White House issued a veto threat on Monday, and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough reinforced that message in a private meeting with House Democrats on Tuesday morning. Late Wednesday, the White House issued another veto threat over restrictions in the bill on President Barack Obama's ability to transfer terror suspects from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The full-throated message had little influence.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., highlighted her vote for the bill and its importance to her home state, where more than 150,000 have defence or defence-related jobs. Her colleague, Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., praised the A-10 Warthog, which trains in Tucson.

In committee, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., a former pilot and tea party favourite elected in 2012, spared three of seven AWACS aircraft based at Tinker Air Force Base in his home state.

The House engaged in a spirited debate over post-Sept. 11 laws and practices, and whether they are overly broad and still viable nearly 13 years after the terror attacks. Lawmakers pressed to sunset the authorization given to the president to use military force, to end the indefinite detention of terror suspects captured on U.S. soil and to close the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The House rejected all three amendments to change current law.

To address the pervasive problem of sexual assault in the military, the bill would change the military rules of evidence to prohibit the accused from using good military character as defence in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime.

The "good soldier defence" could encompass a defendant's military record of reliability, dependability, professionalism and reputation as an individual who could be counted on in war and peacetime.

Overall, the legislation would provide $495.8 billion for the core defence budget, $17.9 billion for energy programs within Pentagon spending and $79.4 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations.

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