Defense budget debate touches on Afghanistan, NASCAR

WASHINGTON Thu May 17, 2012 7:21pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - War-weary lawmakers nudged President Barack Obama to speed the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan on Thursday but Republicans blocked a big debate on the issue ahead of a NATO summit to chart the way forward in the decade-long conflict.

The clash over Afghanistan came as lawmakers in the House of Representatives debated an annual policy bill that would authorize $642.5 billion in defense spending for the 2013 fiscal year beginning in October, including $88.5 billion for the Afghan war and other overseas operations.

The National Defense Authorization Act 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 to eliminate one high-profile expenditure, however. 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 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.

LEAVING AFGHANISTAN

The pressure for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan came as lawmakers began working their way through more than 140 proposed amendments to the authorization act.

NATO leaders are expected to discuss the final transition to Afghan security control and the withdrawal of international forces by the end of 2014 at a summit in Chicago this weekend.

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 only 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 and had little chance of passing.

"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."

Republican Rob Bishop said he was "somewhat perplexed" by the Democratic complaints, adding they would have an opportunity to raise their concerns about the Afghanistan war during debate on the amendment seeking an immediate withdrawal.

Representative Barbara Lee, the Democrat who sponsored that measure, said in debate it was critical for the United States to "stop pouring billions on a counterproductive military presence in Afghanistan."

"The American people have made it clear that the war is no longer worth fighting, not for another year, not for another two years," she said, citing polls showing some 70 percent of the U.S. public oppose the war.

But Republican Representative Mac Thornberry criticized the measure.

"Essentially this amendment says get out now. Leave Afghanistan regardless of the consequences," he said. "You cannot just abandon Afghanistan and ... stick your head in the sand and pretend it's not going to have consequences."

PRESIDENTIAL DETENTION POWERS

A bipartisan coalition that included Tea Party conservatives and liberal Democrats lined up behind an effort to revoke broad powers of detention granted to the president in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Critics say they would enable the U.S. leader to lock up terror suspects detained in the United States indefinitely or transfer them to military control. Supporters say foreign terror suspects should not be allowed access to the U.S. court system.

"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 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.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Bill Trott)

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