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Congress readies defense budget

/ Source: The Associated Press

Congress is knocking nearly $1 billion off President Barack Obama's request for Afghanistan's security forces and instead devoting the money to buying more mine-resistent vehicles for U.S. troops there.

The move comes as top House-Senate lawmakers are putting the finishing touches on a $626 billion Pentagon spending bill that Democratic leaders hope to clear for Obama's signature by Friday. Passage of the politically popular measure has been held up for weeks because Democratic leaders want to attach other controversial items to it.

The measure contains $128 billion to support Obama's February request for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president has yet to request funds for his recently-announced troop increase in Afghanistan, and there is no money in the bill for that.

The package contains about $465 million to develop an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force's multimission fighter of the future. The administration said in June it would veto the legislation if it would "seriously disrupt" the F-35 program, an iffy threat at best. It has since backpedaled from the veto threat after the program won an impressive Senate vote.

The bill contains no funds for new F-22 fighters. Defense Secretary Robert Gates staked his reputation on killing the jobs-rich but well-over-budget program, which has its origins in the Cold War era but is poorly suited for anti-insurgent battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Details of the measure emerged from lobbyists and staff aides who demanded anonymity to discuss the measure before it becomes public.

The defense measure would trim $900 million from the Pentagon's $7.5 billion budget to train Afghan security forces. It would use the money to buy about 1,400 additional mine-resistance vehicles suited for rugged conditions in Afghanistan.

Lawmakers said they support training Afghan soldiers — the linchpin in the U.S. strategy to end the war. But Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has said the Afghan government can't use all the money until 2011. Negotiators siphoned it for more armored vehicles.

The underlying defense bill is also expected to fund 10 C-17 cargo jets despite Obama's demand to cease production of the planes, which are assembled in Long Beach, Calif., by the Boeing Co.

It may take days for the measure to officially come together as House and Senate leaders grapple over what items to add to it. House Democrats want to attach an extension of jobless benefits and health insurance subsidies for the unemployed — as well as a so-called jobs bill containing new infrastructure money and other spending that the Senate is resisting.

Democratic leaders also hope the measure can carry a politically unpopular increase in the government's ability to issue U.S. debt. That idea is teetering because of demands by moderate Senate Democrats for a special deficit reduction commission that would be guaranteed votes on recommendations for spending cuts and tax increases. The proposal is opposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The Senate may be left with no choice but to approve a $925 billion debt increase already approved by the House, or a short-term increase into early next year that would buy more time for negotiations over the deficit commission. At the same time, as a condition for their votes, House "Blue Dog" Democrats are demanding a "pay-as-you-go" budget law aimed at ensuring that new tax cuts or new spending programs don't increase deficits.

The defense spending measure would be the last of the 12 annual spending bills for the budget year, which began Oct. 1, to become law. A stopgap bill that's been financing agencies whose budgets weren't enacted expires Dec. 18.