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Senate votes final approval of $401b for defense

WASHINGTON -- The Senate gave final approval yesterday to a $401.3 billion defense bill that gives the Pentagon greater control over its civilian work force and eases environmental restrictions on the military.

The bill authorizing 2004 defense programs now goes to President Bush for his signature.

Democrats joined Republicans in the 95 to 3 vote, despite their objections to the broader Pentagon authority. They stressed the measure would provide new benefits to active- duty soldiers and veterans.

Opposing the bill was Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, who said it "transfers vast, unchecked powers to the Defense Department while avoiding any break with the business-as-usual approach to increasing defense spending."

The bill is $1.5 billion more than the amount Bush requested and about 2.2 percent more than Congress approved last year. The House approved it last Friday, 362 to 40.

The measure raises salaries for soldiers by an average of 4.15 percent and extends increases in combat and family-separation pay.

It would also partly reverse a policy of reducing disabled veterans' retirement benefits by $1 for every dollar received in disability pay. The change would be phased in over 10 years and mainly help the more seriously disabled, about a quarter of a million veterans. It will cost $22 billion.

In a compromise, the bill allows the Air Force to lease 20 Boeing 767 planes as midair refueling tankers and buy 80 more. The Air Force says it urgently needs to replace its aging fleet, but some senators said its original proposal to lease all 100 planes was too expensive.

The measure would also authorize some of the Pentagon's most costly programs, including $9.1 billion for ballistic missile defense, $6.6 billion for the construction of seven new ships, $4.4 billion for developing the Joint Strike Fighter, and $3.5 billion for 22 F/A-22 Raptor jet fighters.

The Pentagon lobbied most intensively over changes affecting civil service and environmental regulations -- and generally prevailed.

Democrats also said the bill goes too far in providing the military with exemptions to the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. "We are spending such [an inordinate] amount of money protecting the suspected habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker that it's having a very deteriorating effect on our ability to train," said Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma.

The bill also lifts a decade-old ban on research into low-yield nuclear weapons.

The bill adds 2,400 soldiers to the Army. The Pentagon has not sought additional troops, but lawmakers are concerned that the military is being stretched thin by demands in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world.

In addition to Byrd, Senators Daniel Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii, and James Jeffords, Independent of Vermont, voted against the bill. Two Democrats, both presidential candidates, were absent, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. Additional funds for military construction projects would be provided under a separate $9.3 billion measure, which the Senate approved, 98 to 0, yesterday. The House backed the measure last week.

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