House OKs war spending measure

June 20, 2008|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON - The House approved hundreds of millions of dollars yesterday to speed construction of the new Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, part of the national base realignment that is expected to bring tens of thousands of jobs to Maryland.

The funding was part of the war spending bill approved last night 268-155, which provides $162 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The legislation did not include $75 million that the Senate had approved for commercial fisheries disaster assistance, money that Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, had sought to assist Chesapeake Bay watermen.

"Without funds in the federal checkbook, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez has no funding source when and if he approves the disaster requests for the Gulf Coast, New England and my home state," Mikulski said last night. "This is about lives and livelihoods in a struggling economy."

The legislation includes $863 million for base realignment projects nationwide, restoring some of the funding that had been cut from the federal budget, and $416 million for the move of Walter Reed from Washington to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

"It's important to keep it on track, to keep it on schedule," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, whose district will house the new Walter Reed.

"I am pleased that the supplemental will fully fund Walter Reed's transition and look forward to seeing the Department of Defense develop a comprehensive plan for the construction of these new medical facilities," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat.

The House bill now heads to the Senate, which approved the Walter Reed money in its version of the legislation. Senate leaders had not decided yesterday whether to seek negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate versions or simply vote on the House bill.

White House Budget Director Jim Nussle said yesterday that President Bush "can support" the House version. After weeks of negotiations, Democrats abandoned the efforts of earlier war spending bills to force Bush to wind down the war in Iraq. But the package before the House last night included additional spending of the sort the White House has resisted.

Among the additions: $63 billion over 10 years for college tuition assistance for service members who have served since Sept. 11, 2001; $12.5 billion over two years to provide 13 more weeks of unemployment assistance to people whose 26-week benefits have run out; and $2.7 billion in disaster aid to replenish accounts after the flooding that has devastated the Midwest.

"This legislation is not perfect," Hoyer said. "No legislation is. But it will provide for our troops in the field, while addressing critical priorities here at home."

The legislation, expected to cover military operations through the end of the Bush administration, would bring the cost of the war in Iraq to more than $600 billion. It would give Bush's successor several months to set Iraq policy after taking office in January and spare lawmakers further war-related votes before November elections.

"The way it's been set up now, whoever ... is president will have a few months to think through how we are going to extricate ourselves," said Rep. David R. Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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