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Top White House official, upset with defence bill, meets with House Democrats

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WASHINGTON - The White House is escalating an election-year dispute with Congress over military spending as lawmakers bucked the Pentagon and spared favourite ships and aircraft despite diminishing budgets.

One day after a veto threat, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough met privately with House Democrats on Tuesday and criticized the $601 billion defence authorization bill over the changes as the Defence Department deals with smaller budgets.

The House was scheduled to begin three days of debate Tuesday on the policy bill that saves the A-10 Warthog aircraft that provides close air support, steers millions to refuel an aircraft carrier and upgrades tanks while rejecting Pentagon pleas to close unnecessary military bases and increase out-of-pocket costs for housing and health care for personnel and their families.

"Denis said 'if there's no bill, that's fine. We can live with that,'" Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., told reporters as he emerged from the closed-door meeting.

Congress has passed the bill that authorizes spending and sets policy for 52 years straight as it remains one of the most popular, bipartisan measures. A separate spending bill provides the money for the Defence Department, and the military could operate with that alone.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said the House bill is just a first step in a six-month process as the Senate must craft its version of the legislation. The two bills would then be reconciled, with input from the administration.

In its statement on Monday, the White House complained that the House bill increases "the risk to the department's ability to implement the president's defence strategy, contributing to a military that will be less capable of responding effectively to future challenges. In addition, the bill's continuation of unwarranted restrictions regarding detainees held at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, undermines our national security."

The House Armed Services Committee approved the bill unanimously on May 8 on a vote of 61-0. The House is expected to complete work on the bill by week's end.

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