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House panel approves $601 billion defense bill despite Hagel's appeal for fiscal restraint

| Thursday, May 8, 2014, 8:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The A-10 Warthog, military bases scattered across the country and the generous housing allowance for service members survived the budget knife early on Thursday morning, as a House panel rebuffed Pentagon pleas and approved a $601 billion Defense bill that spares ships, planes and benefits.

In a unanimous vote, the Armed Services Committee backed the legislation that authorizes overall spending for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The blueprint spared excess military bases, the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane, Navy cruisers and an 11th aircraft carrier, as parochial interests prevailed in an election year.

The full House is expected to consider the legislation the week of May 19. The bill would have to be reconciled with a still-to-be-written Senate version.

During an all-day, all-night session, the committee voted overwhelmingly to provide $635 million for the Air Force's A-10 close-air support aircraft, rejecting the service's plan to retire the plane. The A-10 has a strong coalition of backers in Congress, and Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., secured bipartisan votes for his measure.

The bill prevents the Pentagon from moving ahead with another round of base closures of excess facilities and rejects any Pentagon effort to force service members to pay slightly more in out-of-pocket costs for off-base housing.

The panel's actions were a day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appealed for fiscal restraint.

“Sustaining our edge in the face of new strategic and fiscal challenges will require Congress' partnership in making tough choices, always looking at our broader national interests instead of narrow constituencies,” Hagel said.

The overall spending level matches a deficit-driven, bipartisan budget agreement and reflects a new phase for the Pentagon after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. That forced lawmakers to make tradeoffs, pinching the budget for operations and maintenance by $1.4 billion to cover the cost of favored ships and planes.

The hours of debate Wednesday produced fierce policy discussions on topics ranging from sexual assault in the ranks to whether sailors and Marines should be allowed to smoke.

In a win for the Pentagon, the committee endorsed leaving the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders.

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