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Senate panel passes $576 billion defense spending bill

Senate panel passes $576 billion defense spending bill
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The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 27-3 on Thursday to pass a $575.9 billion defense spending bill, setting the stage for a fight over budget caps.

Only three Democrats voted against the bill, but Democratic leaders say they will block the bill when it hits the floor next week. 

"Democrats will vote against the motion to proceed ... not because we want to be pugnacious ... but because we want to end sequester," said the committee's top Democrat Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiAthletic directors honor best former student-athletes on Capitol Hill Dems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Robert Mueller's forgotten surveillance crime spree MORE (Md.). 

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Democrats object to the bill, since it keeps in place sequester budget limits but skirts those caps on defense by boosting a Pentagon war fund.

Democrats are pressing Republicans to lift the caps for nondefense spending as well and say they will block consideration of all spending bills until GOP leaders agree to a budget summit.

The president has threatened to veto any bill that adheres to the caps and has urged Congress to lift the limits.

Democrats have derided the use of the war fund, known as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), as a "gimmick."

Mikulski said it was "simply a tool to finesse the budget caps." OCO "sounds like a rare bird from Costa Rica," she added.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, urged Republicans to begin talks on lifting the caps and avoid a potential government shutdown in October when the new fiscal year starts.

"Why do we want to wait until September to have this talk?" Durbin said. "We're trying to have this high-level mature conversation now." 

He warned that the Republican spending plan "will simply not succeed," and there were not enough votes to override Obama's veto. Republicans would need 13 Democrats in the Senate for a veto-proof majority. 

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) criticized Democrats' vow to block consideration of the bill on the floor.

"I object to this business of saying, 'We're not going to allow you to bring to the floor because the president might veto it,' " he said. "If the U.S. Senate halts our work every time the president says we might veto your bill, why are we here?"

An amendment from Durbin to move $38 billion from the war fund to the base budget failed in a party line 14-16 vote.

However, the committee did vote 18-12 to adopt a measure by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) to express the sense of the Senate that the budget caps should be lifted.  

Committee members also debated another amendment from Durbin and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to allow the Obama administration to transfer Guantánamo Bay detainees to maximum-security prisons in the U.S.  

Durbin argued that it cost $3.2 million per year to house a detainee at the Cuban prison, versus $70,000 to house them at a super-max facility in the U.S. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) strongly objected to the amendment, and said the administration needs to submit a plan to Congress for approval on how it plans to close the facility.

Graham, a retired Air Force colonel and a 2016 presidential candidate, argued the money spent on Guantánamo is "money well spent."

"I hope we fill the damn place up," he said. The amendment failed 14-16. 

Committee members unanimously approved an amendment that would prevent planned Pentagon cuts to military commissaries, on base grocery stores that offer lower prices to troops and their families. 

Mikulski, who introduced the amendment, called the cuts a "cheap shot" that would lead to higher prices and reduced hours, and hurt military families.  

"The Pentagon has a long-range plan to cut or shrink commissaries," said Mikulski. "The president was wrong. [Defense Secretary] Ash Carter was wrong. They were all wrong." 

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) proposed an amendment that would ban the use of money for major deployments of U.S. ground combat troops to Iraq, in the absence of an authorization of the use of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

The amendment failed 9-21, largely on party lines. Some Democrats voted against the measure, including Mikulski, Feinstein and Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.). 

Feinstein argued the Senate Appropriations Committee was the "wrong place to do this." 

"We heard things even yesterday," said Feinstein, who is the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said of the fight against ISIS. "The problem with intelligence is that we can't talk about it, so you can't really indicate what you hear, in terms of current operations, current threats. 

"I think this is a mistake. I'm for giving the president maximum flexibility right now," she said, adding that decisions needed to be made, otherwise "we will one day be fighting them here."