WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate overwhelmingly approved a sweeping, $631 billion defense bill Tuesday that sends a clear signal to President Barack Obama to move quickly to get U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan, tightens sanctions on Iran and limits the president's authority in handling terror suspects.
Ignoring a veto threat, the Senate voted 98-0 for the legislation that authorizes money for weapons, aircraft and ships and provides a 1.7 percent pay raise for military personnel. After a decade of increasing Pentagon budgets, the vote came against the backdrop of significant reductions in projected military spending and the threat of deeper cuts from the looming "fiscal cliff" of automatic spending cuts and tax increases.
The bill reflects the nation's war-weariness after more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, the messy uncertainty about new threats to U.S. security and Washington belt-tightening in times of trillion-dollar-plus deficits. Spending solely on the base defense budget has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, but the latest blueprint reins in the projected growth in military dollars.
The bill would provide some $526 billion for the base defense budget, $17 billion for defense programs in the Energy Department and about $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan. House and Senate negotiators must reconcile their competing versions of the bill in the next few weeks.
"The major challenge is time," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters after the vote.
Reacting to the relentless violence in Syria, the Senate voted 92-6 to require the Pentagon to report to Congress on the ability of the U.S. military to impose a no-fly zone over Syria.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has pushed for greater U.S. military involvement to end the Syrian civil war, sponsored the amendment. Obama on Monday warned Syrian President Bashar Assad not to use chemical and/or biological weapons against his people as the U.S. and its allies weigh military options.
"If military action has to be taken to prevent sarin gas to be used, Congress has to be involved," McCain said.
But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said it was a "bad idea to discuss contingency plans for war."
The amendment specified that it should not be construed as a declaration of war or an authorization to use force.
Last year, Obama and congressional Republicans agreed on nearly $500 billion in defense cuts over 10 years. If the two sides fail in the next month to avert the "fiscal cliff" the Pentagon would face an additional $55 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts after the first of the year.
Not far from the Capitol, a coalition of retired military leaders, administration officials and lawmakers pleaded with the president and Congress to address the nation's debt, calling it the greatest threat to national security. The group of prominent Republicans and Democrats said the United States can spend less on defense while still maintaining its military superiority.
"A strong economy and strong national security are inextricably linked," said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.