WASHINGTON - The Senate yesterday passed a defense policy bill that would offer more help to troops returning from combat and set conditions on contractors and pricey weapons programs.
The measure reflects the best Democrats could do this year on their national security agenda while holding a slim majority. Powerless to overcome GOP objections in the Senate, the bill does not order troops home from Iraq, as Democrats would have liked.
The 90-to-3 vote follows House approval earlier this week and sends the measure to President Bush to sign, which he is expected to do.
"Caring for our troops and their families must always be our top priority," said Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which helped write the bill. The bill, which covers the 2008 budget year, authorizes $696 billion in military spending, including $189 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While it does not send money to the Pentagon, it is considered a crucial policy measure because it guides companion spending legislation and dictates the acquisition and management of weapons programs.
The bill would authorize a 3.5 percent pay raise for service members. It also would guarantee that combat veterans receive mental health evaluations within 30 days of their request and prohibit fee increases to the military's healthcare system.
In one provision that is likely to be particularly costly, troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are guaranteed three more years of Veterans Affairs healthcare after being discharged. Current law gives troops two years to file claims.
Advocates say the extra time is needed because conditions can worsen over time or take more time to become obvious, particularly in cases of brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.