WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led Congress authorized more Iraq war spending on Friday, sending President George W. Bush a defense bill requiring no change in strategy after failing again to impose a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.
The defense policy bill, approved 90-3 by the U.S. Senate, also expanded the size of the U.S. Army and set conditions on the Bush administration’s plan to build a missile defense system in Europe.
The measure already had passed the House of Representatives and now goes to Bush, who is expected to sign it into law. It authorizes Pentagon programs expected to cost $506.9 billion during fiscal 2008, which began in October.
The bill authorized another $189.4 billion for the Iraq and Afghan wars, for which Congress has already approved some $600 billion. But it does not deliver the new money. That is done by appropriations legislation at the center of a big dispute on Capitol Hill.
Democratic efforts to amend the defense policy legislation to change course in Iraq passed the House of Representatives but failed several times this year in the narrowly divided Senate.
Republicans, who used procedural rules to block the pullout plans each time they came up, were happy with the result.
“I was pleased to see ... no policy changes to the Petraeus plan,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, referring to U.S. Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus whose plan for a temporary boost in U.S. troops in Iraq has been credited with reducing violence.
“The effort (to change course in Iraq) is not over,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said after the vote. But he did not know what the next step in that struggle would be.
Senate Republicans are expected to try next week to appropriate $70 billion to fund the war until well into next year. The Pentagon has said the Army will run out of cash for the war in mid-February.
The defense policy legislation expands the Army by 13,000 soldiers to 525,400 in 2008. It also provides 25,000 more U.S. immigrant visas over five years for Iraqis who worked for the United States and whose lives are now in danger.
The legislation placed conditions on Bush’s plan to build a missile defense system in Europe. It stipulates that Poland and the Czech Republic must give “final approval” — which Levin says means parliamentary approval — to any deal before the project can go ahead.
It also bars funds from being spent on the missile shield until the secretary of defense certifies to Congress that the system would actually work. The White House wants to build the missile shield to counter what it has described as a possible threat from a “rogue state” like Iran.
The bill lays out a road map of military priorities, and directs weapons acquisition programs. Legislators earlier removed some provisions of the bill that Bush had objected to, including a nonmilitary measure to expand protections against hate crimes in the United States.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said it was important to speed the military’s growth without letting recruiting standards slip. Presently, he said, “We’re taking people into the military that we never dreamed of taking in a few years ago,” including some with criminal records.
The legislation includes a 3.5 percent pay raise for the military. In response to complaints, it enhances veterans’ health care, expanding treatment for brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, and assuring speedy mental health evaluations.
Editing by David Alexander