House panel OKs $690 billion in 2012 military spending

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A House of Representatives’ committee approved on Thursday $690 billion for the U.S. military complex in fiscal 2012, including the war in Afghanistan and transition in Iraq, likely a high-water mark.

A U.S. M1 Abrams tank fires during a live fire gunnery exercise with the South Korean army at the U.S. army's Rodriguez range in Pocheon, about 70 km (43 miles) northeast of Seoul and about 15 km (9 miles) south of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, April 15, 2010. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak

The Armed Services panel voted 60 to 1 to authorize $553 billion of the total for the Defense Department’s base budget, matching President Barack Obama’s request sent to Congress in February.

Also approved during a marathon session that ended about 2:30 a.m. was $119 billion for “overseas contingency operations,” $41.5 billion less than requested last year, reflecting the troop drawdown in Iraq.

In addition, the committee cleared $18 billion for the Energy Department’s military-related nuclear activities, Chairman Howard McKeon, a California Republican, said in a statement.

The total in the House panel’s bill may mark a ceiling on what Congress ultimately approves for fiscal 2012, which starts October 1.

The House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for writing the 13 bills that actually fund the government, said on Wednesday it tentatively planned to shave $8.9 billion from Obama’s request for the Pentagon’s core budget.

Congress provided $668.6 billion for the U.S. military complex and wars in fiscal 2011, down from $709 billion requested by Obama.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to take up its version of the National Defense Authorization Act next month. The two versions must be passed by the full House and Senate and any differences must be ironed out before being sent to Obama for his signature into law.

Obama is aiming to trim $400 billion, or 4 percent, from roughly $10 trillion in projected national security-related spending through fiscal 2023 as part of a national debt reduction drive.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday his main goal before stepping down next month is to focus attention on strategic choices facing the nation as it flattens military spending to help curb the growing national debt.

The House panel voted to add $425 million aimed at continuing the production line for the Army’s M1 Abrams tanks, a General Dynamics Corp program, and M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, made by BAE Systems Plc.

The Army’s current plan would result in the first break in tank production since 1941, lasting one to three years.

Roscoe Bartlett, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees tactical air and land forces, argued that such a gap could end up costing more than keeping Abrams tank and Bradley fighting vehicle production lines open while preserving important parts of the U.S. military industrial base.

The Army, as a matter of policy, does not comment on pending legislation, said Lieutenant Colonel David Gercken, an Army spokesman, in response to the legislative action.

The panel, voting along largely party lines, also added $100 million to the Ground-based Mid-course missile defense program managed by Boeing Co, the country’s sole shield against long-range ballistic missiles.

As the session was under way, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn told an investors conference in New York that the Pentagon was seeking to “slow defense spending responsibly while retaining the most effective fighting force in the world.”

He said he was leading a “sector-by-sector and tier-by-tier” review of the suppliers that make up what the Pentagon calls the defense industrial base.

“This detailed review will inform our budget decisions, our acquisition decisions, and our industrial policy,” he told a

Royal Bank of Canada conference aboard the Intrepid, an aircraft carrier that now serves as a floating air and space museum.

The Pentagon aims to make sure “that the defense industry as a whole emerges stronger as a result of any significant structural changes,” Lynn said.

Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat, was the sole panel member to vote against the bill. He said he did so because it extends the war in Afghanistan, delays the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and “furthers billions of dollars in wasteful Pentagon spending.”

Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Maureen Bavdek and Carol Bishopric