House approves East Coast missile shield site in $643 billion defense bill

House approves East Coast missile shield site in $643 billion defense bill

The House on Friday approved a sweeping defense authorization bill for 2013 that calls for the construction of an East Coast missile defense system in the United States by the end of 2015. 

The bill obligates $100 million next year to plan for the site, but the project would cost billions of dollars in later years that has yet to be funded.

The language was derided by a House Democrat as an "East Coast Star Wars fantasy base" but nonetheless escaped further scrutiny during floor debate Wednesday and Thursday on amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

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Friday afternoon, members approved the bill in a 299-120 vote after approving dozens of amendments, some after fierce debate that revealed disagreements on issues such as detainee policy, nuclear cooperation with Russia and the speed of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Seventy-seven Democrats support the bill, while 16 Republicans opposed it.

The NDAA authorizes $643 billion in spending for the Department of Defense and overseas contingency operations, $8 billion above the spending caps in last year's Budget Control Act (BCA) and $3.7 billion higher than President Obama's request. 

The House authorization level will lead to a showdown with the Senate, which is marking up the authorization bill in committee next week, because the Democratic-led Senate is expected authorize funding roughly at the president's level.

Republicans have been pushing back against $487 billion in cuts the Pentagon is planning to make over the next decade as part of the BCA. The authorization bill from Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) follows the budget of Budget Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanGOP group releases Spanish-language healthcare ad Week ahead: Trump's health pick takes the hot seat Trump criticizes controversial piece of House GOP tax plan MORE (R-Wis.), which restores a chunk of the defense cuts while making more cuts to non-defense discretionary spending.

The House reaffirmed that plan Friday by passing an amendment that replaced the first year of the sequestration cuts — more than $50 billion to the defense budget — with discretionary cuts that were included in Ryan's budget. The House also rejected a Democratic amendment to reduce the bill by $8 billion to keep it in line with the BCA.

Aside from the sheer size of the bill, the House version contains several policy provisions that are likely to face opposition in the Senate, not the least of which is the East Coast missile system. Republicans said the site is needed to counter rising threats from Iran and North Korea, but Democrats say the military does not want the East Coast missile shield and blasted its $100 million startup cost.

Rep. John GaramendiJohn GaramendiOutdated infrastructure poses national security risk Dems urge treaty ratification after South China Sea ruling Fight over California drought heats up in Congress MORE (D-Calif.) proposed an amendment to replace the $100 million with a study on the issue, but it was not accepted by the Rules Committee and did not receive a vote.

The controversial policy on detaining terrorist suspects also drew sharp debate in the early hours of Friday morning. The House ultimately supported current law that allows the government to indefinitely detain these suspects, after defeating a bipartisan amendment from Democrats and libertarian Republicans to eliminate this policy.

Instead, the members approved language reaffirming that U.S. citizens cannot lose their habeas corpus rights if suspected of terrorism.

The House also took several swipes at Obama by including language that would limit his ability to cooperate with Russia on nuclear weapons issues or reduce the nuclear stockpile. These amendments were a reaction to when Obama was overheard on a live microphone telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" on European missile defense after the 2012 election.

Republicans took that as a sign that Obama would weaken plans for a missile defense system in Europe to satisfy Russia and as a further indication that the president might act to reduce the capacity of the United States to wage nuclear war.

The GOP also used this issue to blunt the New START treaty, which they say forced the United States to reduce its nuclear stockpile while allowing Russia to add to its own weapons cache.

"The New START treaty with Russia will go down as one of the worst, most one-sided deals in our country's history," Rep. Denny Rehberg (D-Mont.) said. "If two countries signed a nuclear arms reduction treaty, shouldn't both sides have to reduce their nuclear arms to meet agreed-upon targets? That's not what happened."

Democrats argued that the amendment might lead Russia to increase its arsenal further if it knows the United States will stop reducing its own. But the House approved Rehberg's amendment to prevent further U.S. reductions under the treaty by a 238-162 vote.

Opponents of the continued military presence in Afghanistan pushed for a faster withdrawal of troops on Thursday but saw their amendment defeated 113-303.

"My amendment allows Congress the opportunity to stand squarely with the war-weary American people who want to bring our troops home," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) Thursday. "The call has been growing across this land to bring this war to an end. It's time now for the Congress to answer the call here today."

Earlier in the week, Democrats bristled at the Republican decision not to allow consideration of a bipartisan amendment that would require all troops to leave Afghanistan by 2013 and hand over security operations to Afghan forces by 2014. Several charged that Republicans were afraid that this amendment might pass.

As it stands, the bill requires a minimum of 68,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2014.

While not debated on the floor, the bill also includes two amendments added in the Armed Services Committee dealing with same-sex marriage and the military. The first would bar same-sex marriage ceremonies from occurring on military bases, and the second says military chaplains can't be punished for not supporting same-sex marriage.

Elsewhere, the bill pushes back against a number of cuts the Pentagon had proposed, including by preventing the Pentagon from using funds to retire the Global Hawk Block 30 drones and reversing proposed cuts to the Air National Guard.

The bill also rolls back proposed increases in fees to TRICARE, the military's healthcare system.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta took aim at the House's Defense authorization bill last week, saying it would lead to political gridlock.

"When Congress restores funds to protect particular constituencies that may not be critical to our national defense capabilities, then they risk upending the kind of careful balance that we've worked very hard to achieve," Panetta said.

McKeon responded that Panetta's criticism was off-base, saying in a letter to Panetta that the added funds address the "vulnerabilities" in the president's budget.