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House approves version of defense spending bill, Senate version includes Fort Drum funding

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The House of Representatives put its stamp on potential military cuts, approving its version of the defense spending bill Thursday.

The $601 billion bill includes a commission to study force reduction plans, blocks Pentagon plans to cut aircraft and ships, and restores benefits and pay changes.

The vote was 325-98.

Despite Pentagon objections, Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said, it was appropriate for lawmakers to reverse some of the cuts, which could have affected Fort Drum soldiers.

“We want to take their advice, but we want to make sure we’re making a civilian-level judgment,” he said.

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, defended his House bill and rejected the suggestion that the measure was a “sop to parochial interests,” arguing it makes “the tough decisions that put the troops first.”

But the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith, of Washington state, complained that the House rejected the Pentagon’s cost-saving proposals and came up with no alternatives.

“We ducked every difficult decision,” Rep. Smith said.

With the ending of two wars and diminishing budgets, the Pentagon had proposed retiring the U-2 and the A-10, taking 11 Navy cruisers out of the normal rotation for modernization and increasing out-of-pocket costs for housing and health care.

Republicans, even tea partiers who came to Congress demanding deep cuts in federal spending, and Democrats rejected the Pentagon budget, sparing the aircraft, ships and troop benefits.

The bill also includes provisions to prohibit the accused in sexual assault cases from using good military character as defense in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime.

The House bill also includes $20 million for researching an East Coast missile defense site, for which Fort Drum is a potential location. Money for the potential site, which the military is assessing its need for, has received some criticism from the White House, which called it “premature and potentially wasteful.” Also considered are locations in Vermont, Ohio, Maine and Michigan.

Mr. Owens said House leadership will push hard for the funds, given its belief in the site’s ability to protect from attacks from North Korea and Iran.

“If it’s decided we do need this, we don’t want to be pushing it back further and further for implementation,” he said.

As the House finished its work, the Senate will take up its own version of the bill in a few months.

On Friday, U.S. Sens. Kirsten E. Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer announced that $27 million in funding for a new MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone hangar at Fort Drum’s Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield cleared the committee level.

“Federal funding for a new hangar at Fort Drum will support and expand its current unmanned aerial operations, and help ensure the facility stays an engine of jobs and economic growth for Watertown and all of Jefferson County for years to come,” Sen. Schumer said in a statement.

Sen. Gillibrand, in a statement, said, “This new unit bolsters our national defense capabilities, and building the new hangar will put New Yorkers to work.”

The pair reported the program, in operation since October, has acquired four of the nine drones it will use for its operations, which are stored in a temporary facility.

The unmanned 3,600-pound Gray Eagle, equipped with up to four Hellfire missiles, has been used for various missions, including surveillance, convoy protection and air support.

The hangar funding also was in the House version of the defense spending bill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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