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CONGRESS CLEARS DEFENSE BILL

22 July 22 The U.S. Congress on Thursday sent President George W. Bush a $416.2bn defense spending bill that includes $25bn in emergency funds for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving the measure overwhelming backing after little debate.

The Senate unanimously approved the huge bill to finance the Pentagon 96-0, its last major act before breaking for a six-week recess to campaign for Nov. 2 congressional and presidential elections. Also scrambling to complete business before the recess, the House of Representatives passed the measure 410-12.

The Pentagon can tap the $25 billion emergency funds for Iraq and Afghanistan — provided as a down payment until the administration seeks a much bigger emergency spending bill next year — once Bush signs the bill. The $391 billion core of the Pentagon’s budget, up $22 billion from current levels, becomes available with the Oct. 1 start of the next fiscal year. Bush said he looked forward to signing the bill into law.

“Our troops will have what they need to do their job and I am pleased that a bipartisan majority in the Congress continues to stand with me to support our military,” he said in a statement.

The Pentagon acknowledged it may have to start using the emergency money before next fiscal year after the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ auditing agency, in a report on Wednesday said the administration had underestimated this year’s costs for the wars by $12.3 billion.

The Pentagon said it hoped to get through September by shifting funds in various accounts, but Democrats said the GAO report highlighted administration bungling.

“This is the most astounding evidence to date that the administration has fundamentally mismanaged the financing for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat. The defense bill also funds an authorized increase of 20,000 Army troops, despite the Pentagon’s objections that its need for more forces is temporary and should not be built into the budget.

The Pentagon instead wanted to fund the increase of about 30,000 troops it says it needs for Iraq and Afghanistan from emergency spending bills. Also tucked into the final measure was $500 million in emergency funds for fighting U.S. wildfires, $95 million for humanitarian aid in the Darfur region of Sudan and $25 million each for Boston and New York to tighten security at the upcoming Democratic and Republican national conventions. The bill, which meets most of Bush’s demands, provides $10 billion for his program to deploy a system to intercept enemy ballistic missiles, up $1 billion from current levels but $183 million less than Bush wanted. The final bill includes $100 million for a generic aircraft “tanker replacement transfer fund,” although House appropriators had pushed to designate the funds to buy tankers from Boeing Co. (NYSE:BA – News) as part of a controversial plan to upgrade the tanker fleet. (Reuters)

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