Image: President Bush Signs National Defense Authorization Act
President Bush signs the defense spending bill Monday at the Pentagon as administration officials and lawmakers look on.
updated 11/24/2003 5:00:28 AM ET 2003-11-24T10:00:28

President Bush signed a $401.3 billion defense authorization bill Monday, saying members of the U.S. armed forces are facing “a great and historic task” in confronting and defeating the forces of terrorism.

“THE STAKES FOR our country could not be higher,” the president said at a Pentagon ceremony. “We face enemies that measure their progress by the chaos they inflict, the fear they spread and the innocent lives they destroy.”

“America’s military is standing between our country and grave danger,” he added. “We’re standing for order and hope and democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq,” the president said. “We’re standing up for the for security of all free nations and for the advance of freedom. The American people and your commander in chief are grateful,” he said, “and we will support you in all your central missions.”

After signing the bill, Bush was heading to Fort Carson, Colo., home to four of the 16 soldiers killed Nov. 2 when a helicopter was shot down in the dangerous Sunni Triangle near Fallujah, Iraq. Fort Carson has sent 12,000 troops to Iraq, its largest deployment since World War II.

At Fort Carson, he has lunch with soldiers, meets privately with families of some who have died and speaks about the situation in Iraq, where on Sunday two U.S. troops were killed and then pummeled with concrete blocks. U.S. policies in Iraq are a major political vulnerability for Bush in the 2004 election season.

After months in which more than half of Americans approved of the president’s handling of Iraq, a recent CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll showed disapproval at 54 percent and approval at 45 percent. Other polls find the public evenly divided on that question.

Public approval of Bush’s handling of the economy, meanwhile, has increased recently with positive news on that front.

CONCERN AMONG SOLDIERS’ KIN

Families at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, generally have supported the war effort, but there have been voices of concern.

U.S. deaths in postwar Iraq
Harriet Johnson of Cordova, S.C., the mother of Spc. Darius T. Jennings, one of the four Fort Carson soldiers who died in the crash of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter, said she was upset that Bush did not stop to speak with her family when he was in South Carolina earlier this month.

“I understand he may not be able to talk to each one of them direct,” she said. “He was in my hometown. Something should have been said.”

On the other hand, the stepfather of Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas Slocum, who was killed in Iraq on March 23, said he believes Bush takes responsibility for the U.S. casualties, which have topped

400. “If President Bush were go to every family, it would take too much of his time, and if he sees one, he has to see them all,” said Stan Cooper of Thornton, Colo.

DEFENSE BILL PROVISIONS

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Among other things, the defense bill signed into law Monday:

Raises salaries for soldiers by an average of 4.15 percent, and extends increases in combat and family separation pay.

Calls for the Air Force to lease 20 Boeing 767 planes as midair refueling tankers and buy 80 more.

Partially overturns rules preventing disabled veterans from receiving some retirement pay as well as disability compensation.

Grants Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld increased control over 700,000 civilian employees. Pentagon officials said restrictions on hiring, firing and promoting employees forced them to use military personnel for jobs better suited for civilians. Democrats said the bill goes too far in stripping overtime guarantees and job protection rules.

Lifts a decade-old ban on research into low-yield nuclear weapons and authorizes $15 million for continued research into a powerful nuclear weapon capable of destroying deep underground bunkers.

Exempts the military to provisions of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Pentagon claimed environmental laws restrict training exercises; environmentalists said the laws have had little effect on training and that the exemptions go too far.

The president ends the day at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he will observe Thanksgiving with family members.

On Tuesday, he makes a day trip to Las Vegas for a campaign fund-raiser and a speech on Medicare at Spring Valley Hospital, followed by similar appearances in Phoenix.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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