Senate OKs pay raise for military

Ignoring a veto threat, the Senate voted 98-0 for the legislation that now must be reconciled with a separate version approved earlier this year by the House.

The measure also would allow defense industry employees to attend a broader range of courses at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Air Force Institute of Technology. Currently, defense industry employees are limited by the types of courses and total number of students who can attend the graduate education institution.

The bill also would prohibit the Air Force from eliminating six KC-135 refueling tankers at the Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Columbus

After a decade of increasing Pentagon budgets, the vote came against the backdrop of significant reductions in projected military spending and the threat of deeper cuts from the looming “fiscal cliff” of automatic spending cuts and tax increases. (See this story about escalating military pay coming under scrutiny).

In a statement, Sen. Rob Portman – a member of the Senate armed service committee, said that “with the many national security threats we face now and in the future, we must maintain a strong national defense and ensure that our military men and women who put their lives in harm’s way have the resources to defend our freedom. At the same time, with Washington more than $16 trillion in debt, we need to make sure every dollar is spent wisely.

“That is what this legislation accomplishes by implementing the first year of the administration’s $487 billion reduction in planned spending over the next 10 years,’’ said Portman, R-Ohio.

Both Portman and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, have supported keeping the Lima Tank Plant open. President Barack Obama’s budget for the 2012 federal spending year called for closing the facility for three years starting in 2014. But Congress has provided enough money to keep the plant open through June 2014.

The $91 million included in the defense bill would help companies who provide parts for the tank plant to remain open. The House version of the defense bill has $181 million for both suppliers and continued production. The plant is about 65 miles north of Dayton.

Brown described the M1A2 as “vital to our national security and keeping its production and modernization going is critical to our military readiness and preparedness.’’

Brown and Portman also collaborated on a measure in the bill that overturns Obama’s call to eliminate the air tankers from Rickenbacker. Brown and Portman argued that removing the tankers from Rickenbacker would kill hundreds of National Guard positions in the Columbus area.

“These tankers are critical to our national security and the livelihood of many central Ohio service members,” Brown said in a statement. “This legislation will ensure that KC-135 tankers remain at Rickenbacker—preserving jobs for at least another year and providing time to come to a long-term solution.”

The bill reflects the nation’s war-weariness after more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, the uncertainty about new threats to U.S. security and Washington belt-tightening in times of trillion-dollar-plus deficits. Spending solely on the base defense budget has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, but the latest blueprint reins in the projected growth in military dollars.

The bill would provide some $526 billion for the base defense budget including $17 billion for defense programs in the Energy Department and about $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan.

Reacting to the violence in Syria, the Senate also voted 92-6 to require the Pentagon to report to Congress on the ability of the U.S. military to impose a no-fly zone over Syria.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has pushed for greater U.S. military involvement to end the Syrian civil war, sponsored the amendment. Obama on Monday warned Syrian President Bashar Assad not to use chemical and/or biological weapons against his people as the U.S. and its allies weigh military options.

“If military action has to be taken to prevent sarin gas to be used, Congress has to be involved,” McCain said.

The amendment specified that it should not be construed as a declaration of war or an authorization to use force.

Last year, Obama and congressional Republicans agreed on nearly $500 billion in defense cuts over 10 years. If the two sides fail in the next month to avert the “fiscal cliff” the Pentagon would face an additional $55 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts after the first of the year.

The administration has threatened to veto the Senate bill, strongly objecting to a provision restricting the president’s authority to transfer terror suspects from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to foreign countries. The provision is in current law.

The Senate also voted to restrict the transfer of detainees held at Guantanamo to prisons in the United States.

Further stoking the debate over U.S. detention policy — and setting up a fight with the House — the Senate also added a provision saying the government may not detain a U.S. citizen or legal resident indefinitely without charge or trial even if there is a declaration of war or the authorization to use military force.

Donna Cassata of the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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