U.S. defense budget debate touches on Afghanistan, NASCAR

WASHINGTON Fri May 18, 2012 8:05am IST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - War-weary U.S. lawmakers clashed over Afghanistan policy and vented their frustration with Pakistan's border closings on Thursday as they debated an annual defense policy bill that seeks $642.5 billion in military spending for the 2013 fiscal year.

Democrats in the House of Representatives nudged President Barack Obama to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the war zone, but Republicans blocked a debate on the issue ahead of a weekend NATO summit to chart a way forward in the decade-long conflict.

House lawmakers debating the National Defense Authorization Act voted 412-1 for an amendment that could block up to $650 million in proposed payments to Pakistan unless Islamabad lets coalition forces resume shipment of war supplies across its territory.

The moves came as lawmakers debated more than 140 amendments to the policy bill, which seeks $554 billion in base defense spending for the 2013 fiscal year beginning in October and $88.5 billion for the Afghan war and other overseas operations.

The measure has drawn a veto threat from the White House because it would overturn many cuts sought by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in order to achieve congressional budget targets set last year with the goal of cutting $478 billion in projected military spending in the next decade.

While the authorization act sets spending limits, it does not actually appropriate funds for defense. The panel that controls the purse strings passed a bill on Thursday that added about $3 billion to the Pentagon's spending request and also provided funds for programs the Defense Department tried to cut.

The House Appropriations Committee voted, however, to eliminate one high-profile expenditure. It cut Pentagon sponsorship of motor sports, fishing and wrestling events.

The department spent about $96 million last year to sponsor sporting events, including $20 million on a single NASCAR auto race, as part of its marketing effort to recruit volunteers, one official said.

"Twenty million for one NASCAR race? Have we lost our minds?" said Representative Jack Kingston, a leader in the effort to cut the funds.

WAR FATIGUE

The pressure for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan came ahead of a two-day NATO summit in Chicago starting on Sunday where leaders will discuss the final transition to Afghan security control and the withdrawal of international forces by the end of 2014.

Democratic lawmakers tried to add language to the bill urging Obama to complete an accelerated handover of security to Afghan forces by the end of 2013 and to remove U.S. troops by the end of 2014 - aims consistent with administration planning.

But Republican leaders, who last year narrowly defeated an effort to force Obama to begin planning for withdrawal from Afghanistan, blocked discussion of the Democratic amendment. Instead, they allowed debate on one that called for immediate withdrawal. The measure had little chance of passing and was ultimately defeated.

"They denied us the right to debate that amendment and vote on it, (the) single most important issue facing our armed forces right now," said Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

"I understand why. Close to 70 percent of the country wants us out of Afghanistan quicker," he said. "Our position is clearly where the country is. The majority didn't want to have to vote on that, didn't want to have to have that debate. So they froze out our amendment."

Lawmakers nearly unanimously endorsed an amendment that would block payment of some $650 million in proposed Coalition Support Funds for Pakistan as long as that country's borders remain closed to shipments of supplies for international forces.

Islamabad closed the frontier to NATO supply convoys after an air strike in November killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. A U.S. official said on Wednesday the two sides were on the verge of clinching a deal to reopen the supply lines.

The Republican-led House also rejected efforts to delay development of several weapons programs, including a new nuclear-capable, long-range bomber expected to cost $291.7 million in 2013.

PRESIDENTIAL DETENTION POWERS

Lawmakers were headed toward a confrontation over efforts to revoke broad powers of detention granted to the president in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. A bipartisan coalition that includes Tea Party conservatives and liberal Democrats has lined up behind an amendment to change the law.

Critics say current law enables the U.S. president to lock up terrorism suspects detained in the United States indefinitely or transfer them to military control. Supporters of the current law say foreign terrorism suspects arrested in the United States should be treated like enemy combatants, not like criminals.

"One of the key problems that many of us have with the ... amendment is that it would bestow upon illegal aliens who come to this country to carry out terrorist attacks ... full constitutional rights," said Representative Mac Thornberry, noting the measure would give them the right to remain silent and have an attorney hired for them.

Smith said those rights already were guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which does not make a distinction between how foreigners and U.S. citizens are to be treated when arrested.

"Let's stop the ridiculous argument about rewarding terrorists and have some respect for the Constitution and due process," he said.

But several senators issued a statement on Thursday sharply criticizing the amendment, which goes to a vote on Friday.

"We reject any attempts to reward foreign terrorists clever enough to get inside our borders with the same legal rights and protections as American citizens - the very people these terrorists seek to kill and injure," said Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Kyl and Kelly Ayotte.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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