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12 Nov 03. The U.S. Senate on Wednesday gave final congressional approval to a bill for defense programs that clears the way for the Air Force to acquire 100 Boeing Co. refueling aircraft, expands veterans benefits and allows research on new types of nuclear weapons.

On an overwhelming vote, the Senate authorized a record $401.3 billion in Defense and Energy Department national security programs for next year, sending the measure to President George W. Bush. The U.S. House of Representatives approved it on Friday.

The U.S. Congress already has sent Bush legislation providing actual funding for defense programs, as well as separate spending packages to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The authorization bill includes a hard-fought compromise to let the Air Force lease 20 of the tankers for mid-air refueling, then buy the remaining 80.

The Air Force originally planned to lease all 100 new 767A tankers with an option to buy them, which critics said would have been a windfall for Boeing.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, a Virginia Republican, said the plan “will give the Armed Forces the modern equipment they need, but will save the American taxpayers $4 billion over the original proposals.”

The bill also clears the way for research on low-yield nuclear weapons and deep earth-penetrating weapons, after House and Senate negotiators in separate legislation agreed to give Bush most of the money he had sought to study those weapons.

Lawmakers also agreed to expand a U.S. program to dismantle and destroy Cold War era nuclear weapons to keep them from falling into the hands of rogue nations and terror groups, for the first time extending it to nonproliferation programs outside of the former Soviet Union. The bill provides 4.15 percent average raises for uniformed personnel and boosts other benefits for forces including National Guard and Reserves. It partially phases out a rule in which disabled veterans’ retirement benefits are reduced dollar for dollar by their disability coverage.

It also gives U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld much of what he wanted to set up a separate personnel system for the Pentagon’s civilian work force, which he said will help the department deal with the war on terrorism and other threats.

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