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US House clears 513 bln dollar defense policies bill

Written by: Staff
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WASHINGTON, May 12 (Reuters) The US House of Representatives has passed a bill for more than half a trillion dollars in defense programs for next year, including another 50 billion dollar ''bridge fund'' for the Iraq war.

Democrats complained that Republicans barred any meaningful debate on Iraq, along with blocking most of their amendments on a variety of initiatives such as boosting the military's use of alternative energy and requiring military chaplains to show respect toward service members of all faiths.

But the 512.9 billion dollar measure passed on a 396-31 vote yesterday with support of most Democrats who were loathe to oppose it when US soldiers were in Iraq and Afghanistan and before the November congressional elections.

The 50 billion dollar for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, intended to carry the Pentagon until another emergency spending bill is passed early next year, would push the wars' costs well past 400 billion dollar.

The bill calls for increasing Army forces by up to 30,000, Marines by up to 5,000 and the Army National Guard by 17,100. The Pentagon has resisted enlarging the forces despite the strains from the Iraq deployment, saying it would result in excess capacity while the military is trying to make more efficient use of personnel.

The bill also would expand initiatives to counter improvised explosive devices that have been deadly to US soldiers in Iraq, including having radio-jamming devices to block IEDs installed on all military vehicles there by the end of next year.

NEW WAR TECHNOLOGY Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, said new jamming equipment was being tested ''that has great potential'' and could be used on almost every vehicle.

The bill also demands more surveillance aircraft to patrol areas most heavily infested with IEDs.

It provides for a 2.7 percent pay raise for the military instead of the 2.2 percent proposed by the Bush administration, and improved health care benefits.

This authorization bill sets Pentagon policies, while funds will come from spending bills that have not yet moved through the House or Senate. The Senate is expected to debate its broadly similar version of the policy bill in coming weeks.

Citing what some members called ''an invasion'' of illegal immigrants across the southern US border, the House voted, 252-171, to let the Pentagon assign forces to help the Homeland Security Department in border protections. The House has passed this before, but the measure has died in the House-Senate conference to reconcile their bills.

The House overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to slash in half the Bush administration's missile defense program -- set to get 9.3 billion dollar next year -- leaving it just to focus on the most achievable technologies.

Democrats argue the program to build a missile-intercepting system has failed most critical tests, while costing some 0 billion so far.

''A provocative yet permeable defense is destabilizing and weakens the security of all Americans,'' New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt said. But Republicans and some Democrats said possible threats from nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran justified the massive effort.

With the heavy demands on the National Guard and reservists in Iraq and Afghanistan, lawmakers also voted overwhelmingly to specify that the frequency of assignments of military reservists must be taken into account when recalling them into service.

REUTERS PDS PM0324

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