Military personnel will get an above-inflation pay raise of 3.4 percent under a Pentagon policy bill the Senate passed Thursday and sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The pay increase was a half-percentage point more than Obama sought earlier this year and beats the average pay boost in the private sector.
The popular legislation also gives Obama a few victories in his bid to kill some especially costly weapons systems, though it contains an effort by lawmakers to continue development — over the president's strong objections — of a costly alternative engine for the Pentagon's next-generation fighter jet.
The Senate cleared the House-Senate compromise measure by a 68-29 vote.
The far-reaching legislation also prohibits the Obama administration from transferring any detainee being held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba to the U.S. for trial until 45 days after it has given notice to Congress. Guantanamo prisoners could not be released into the U.S.
Hates crimes provision
The bill also contains unrelated legislation strengthening federal hate crimes laws to include violence against homosexuals, angering Republicans who objected to the military measure carrying social legislation.
The bill also contains significant changes to voting procedures for U.S. troops and other American voters overseas.
Some Pentagon reform advocates had hoped Obama would take a more aggressive stance against costly and poorly performing weapons systems. But Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates focused most of their attention on a handful of items, especially trying to kill the jobs-rich but well-over-budget F-22 fighter program, which has its origins in the Cold War era and, its critics maintain, is poorly suited for anti-insurgent battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The measure would terminate production of the F-22.
Lawmakers, however, are taking on the White House — and a vaguely-worded veto threat — over a program to develop an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's multimission fighter of the future. The second engine would be built by General Electric Co. and Rolls-Royce in Ohio, Indiana and other states. The main F-35 engine is built in Connecticut by Pratt & Whitney, a division of United Technologies Corp.
Iffy veto threat?
The administration promised in June to veto the legislation if it would "seriously disrupt" the F-35 program, an iffy threat at best. It says that spending on a second engine is unnecessary and impedes the progress of the Joint Strike Fighter program.
The legislation recommends $560 million for the program in 2010, and the administration has since backpedaled from the veto threat.
"I would be stunned if they vetoed," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said after the vote.
Levin also touted less-noticed provisions that would allow the U.S. to give the Afghanistan army more useful military equipment, revamp the processes for trials of enemy combatants by military commissions to conform with a Supreme Court ruling and authorize small cash payments to Afghans to try to win over their loyalties from the Taliban.
The Pentagon says the Pratt & Whitney engine is performing well and that the second engine adds unnecessary costs and would delay the program. Supporters of the program say it provides competition that would boost contractors' performance and tamp down costs.
The legislation does, however, accede to Obama's call to terminate the VH-71 replacement helicopter program for the presidential fleet. The program is six years behind schedule and estimated costs have doubled to more than $13 billion.
And it cuts the missile defense program by about 12 percent from the $10 billion-plus level envisioned by former President George W. Bush for the 2010 budget year. It supports Obama's plan to cancel the building of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
The $680 billion measure doesn't actually fund the Pentagon's budget but provides policy guidance that is typically followed closely by the appropriations committees. It also approves Obama's $130 billion request to conduct the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
GOP Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, however, blasted the measure for calling for just a 4 percent boost in Pentagon funding.
"The bill is the beginning of a downward spiral in defense spending," Inhofe said. "We have reached a crossroads and have chosen not to invest in the long-term modernization and readiness of our military."
Republicans were irate that the so-called hate crimes legislation was attached to the bill. It would give people attacked because of their sexual orientation or gender federal protections and significantly expand the reach of hate crimes law.
The bill also increases, from $500 to $1,100, the supplemental allowance paid to service members with large families to make sure they earn at least 130 percent of the federal poverty line.
The measure also would boost troop levels to 1,425,000, about 55,000 more than current levels.