Defense authorization gets strong House OK

Bill exempts Pentagon from environmental law, advances base closings

November 08, 2003|By Nick Anderson | Nick Anderson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - In a show of support for an administration at war, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday that would grant the Pentagon exemptions to environmental laws, authorize a major overhaul of the civilian defense bureaucracy and lift a decade-old ban on government research into "low-yield" nuclear weapons.

The bill, a milestone in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's quest to reshape the Pentagon, also drops objections to politically painful military base closures scheduled for two years from now.

The House voted 362-40 for the fiscal 2004 defense authorization, reflecting solid bipartisan support for defense programs at a time when U.S. armed forces are engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Senate is expected to follow suit early next week on the $401 billion measure.

"There's so much in this bill that takes care of the troops, their families, their needs, their capability of waging war," said Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who voted for it. "And we are at war."

The bill would hand Rumsfeld and the administration many victories and few setbacks.

It would authorize a rewrite of decades-old civil service rules for about 700,000 civilians who work for the Pentagon, giving Rumsfeld new authority to move workers from one job to another and enhancing his bargaining position with labor unions. It omits provisions the House passed earlier in the year to limit base closures scheduled to begin in 2005.

The final bill, crafted this week in negotiations between House and Senate Republicans, also drops restrictions the House had sought to force the Pentagon to buy more arms and components from domestic manufacturers.

And it includes a repeal of a law prohibiting research into nuclear weapons with an explosive force of less than 5 kilotons. The Pentagon wants to consider these "low-yield" nuclear devices as a potential addition to its arsenal - a move that critics say could prompt a new arms race.

A priority for Rumsfeld and Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was securing exemptions to the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection acts to remove obstacles to military training exercises.

"It is what we wanted and needed to maintain our readiness and provide our sailors with the training they deserve before they're asked to sail into harm's way on our nation's behalf," said Lt. Cmdr. Joseph "Cappy" Surette, a Navy spokesman. "We work in the ocean, it's our environment, and we take our role of protecting not only the nation but the environment very seriously."

Critics said exempting the Pentagon from the environmental laws would allow the military to disturb whales and dolphins with sonar and underwater explosives and encroach on lands that are habitat for endangered birds and mammals. The new exemptions follow congressional action last year to allow the military to bypass provisions of laws protecting migratory birds.

"The Pentagon is trying to exploit the unfortunate events of the past two years by asking us to sacrifice our natural heritage under the guise of national security," said Karen Wayland, acting legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Rumsfeld did not get his way on everything. He accepted some limits on his personnel-management authority imposed by the Senate. And he was forced to back down from his initial opposition to expansion of certain veterans' benefits.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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