* Vote to speed up Afghan withdrawal falls just shy
* House passes $690 billion defense authorization
* Measure faces White House veto threat
(Adds Hoyer criticism of bill, 12th para)
By David Alexander and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, May 26 House lawmakers sent a clear
warning to President Barack Obama about growing exhaustion over
the war in Afghanistan on Thursday as they passed a defense
policy bill authorizing $690 billion in military spending for
the 2012 fiscal year.
Members of the House of Representatives made two attempts
to force a change in Obama's Afghan war strategy, falling just
a few votes shy on one measure that would have required him to
begin planning for a stepped-up withdrawal. A vote to bar U.S.
troops on the ground in Libya passed nearly unanimously.
The votes came as the Republican-led House debated and
passed the National Defense Authorization Act, 322-96,
approving a $553 billion Pentagon base budget and $119 billion
for overseas contingency operations, mainly the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq. The remaining $18 billion is for
military-related nuclear activity at the Department of Energy.
A Senate panel was expected to start work on the bill next
month. Both chambers must agree on the same legislation before
it goes to President Barack Obama for his signature into law.
Although the bill authorizes expenditures, it is primarily
a means for Congress to set out defense policy. Actual spending
levels are established by appropriations bills.
Among the policies approved as part of the bill were:
-- A provision requiring that "foreign terrorists" detained
by the United States be considered enemy combatants and tried
in military tribunals rather than the civilian court system.
-- A move to keep alive an alternate engine being developed
by General Electric Co (GE.N). and Rolls-Royce Group Plc (RR.L)
for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which was eliminated by the
Pentagon in a cost-cutting move.
-- Conditions that would link implementation of the New
START nuclear arms treaty with Russia to completion of the next
generation of U.S. nuclear production facilities, which will
not be finished until the mid-2020s.
-- A proposal to eliminate the U.S. Institute of Peace, a
congressionally funded institution that works to stabilize
fragile states and end conflicts like the one in Afghanistan.
The bill has drawn a veto threat from the White House
because of its provisions on the New START treaty, the jet
fighter engine and handling of terrorism suspects.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer criticized language in
the bill that he said would dramatically expand the president's
powers to use military force and attempt to reopen the repeal
of a ban on gay men and women serving openly in the military.
Still, Hoyer voted in favor of the measure.
'NATION-BUILDING' NEEDED AT HOME
Much of the debate on the bill dealt with the conflicts in
Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as lawmakers voiced frustration
over the lack of an end in sight after 10 years of war.
"The American people have grown weary of open-ended
military conflicts that place our troops in harm's way and add
billions to our national debt," Democratic Representative John
Conyers said in debate on his proposal to ensure no defense
funds could be used to deploy ground troops in Libya.
Hoyer said that after backing the Afghanistan war for 10
years, he now supports requiring Obama to begin planning for
"The death of Osama bin Laden was a landmark moment," he
said. "The struggle has not ended with bin Laden's death, but
his death is a moment for reflection on that struggle and how
we can best equip ourselves to win it."
Representative Jim McGovern, who sponsored the measure,
warned that Obama was likely to start his promised drawdown in
Afghanistan in July with a token of perhaps 5,000 troops.
"We need to safeguard our national security ... but many of
our greatest problems aren't halfway around the world, they're
halfway down the block. And rather than nation-building in
Afghanistan, we need to do some more nation-building right here
in the United States," he said.
His proposal, which would have required a withdrawal plan
and stepped-up efforts for a political solution, failed on a
204-215 vote. Twenty-six Republicans joined 178 Democrats in
backing it. Last summer, a similar measure got 162 votes.
A separate proposal by Republican Representative Jason
Chaffetz would have required U.S. ground troops to withdraw
from Afghanistan, aside from those involved in small, targeted
counter-terrorism operations. It failed on a vote of 123-294.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)