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Democrats to Wrestle With Rifts Over Defense Bill

Democratic rifts over the Obama administration’s approach to closing the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detainee facility and other war policies will emerge on the House floor this week.

The House by midweek is set to take up a $636.3 billion fiscal 2010 Defense appropriations measure that cuts $100 million sought by the administration for closing the prison in Cuba. It further restricts the transfer of detainees to facilities in the United States until a plan is developed for closing Guantánamo Bay and makes it difficult to transfer the detainees to other countries.

“The bipartisan language included in the amendment prevents a single detainee from being released or transferred until the administration produces an acceptable plan,” said Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who crafted the language in the bill.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, said the money was cut because the administration has not yet offered a plan for dealing with the 240 detainees housed at Guantánamo Bay. The administration had initially said it would have a plan in place by January for relocating detainees, but last week the administration said it would likely need another six months to come up with it.

Liberal House Democrats — who have long called for the closing of the prison — have blasted the administration’s delay in producing a plan.

Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said he would push an amendment to include funding in the bill for the transfer of detainees to U.S. prisons and for shutting down the facility, despite fierce pushback from Republicans.

Thompson said the administration’s delay “undermines our role in the world.”

Liberal Democrats are also expected to raise concerns about the $128.2 billion contained in the bill for fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thirty-two Democrats voted against a war supplemental earlier this year and could do the same on the annual spending bill to signal their frustration with the Obama administration over Iraq.

The effort to curb the war funding will be led by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

“We support [the troops] by bringing them home,” Kucinich said. “That’s what we should be appropriating money for, not to keep them there.”

Liberal Democrats are likely to use as ammunition against more war funding the recent comments made by Murtha that another war supplemental will come next year, despite promises to the contrary from the White House and House leaders.

“There’s no way you can’t have a supplemental. You may not call it a supplemental, but it’ll be a supplemental,” Murtha told Defense reporters recently.

Meanwhile, some House Democrats are expected to back the administration’s call for a “reform” budget by seeking to strip out spending for some weapons not sought by the Pentagon but added by appropriators.

House appropriators funded several big-ticket items not requested by the administration, including $485 million for five test versions of the VH-71 presidential helicopter; $1.7 billion for 18 F-18 Super Hornets for the Navy; $647 million for three C-17 cargo jets; and $560 million to make an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

“We can’t afford to keep funding many of these programs,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass), who’s expected to propose an amendment to cut some of those weapons. “The Pentagon budget is bloated, and we must do something about it soon.”

The Obama administration has not raised significant opposition over more spending for F-18s or C-17s, but it has stated the presidential helicopter is an example of “dysfunctional” Pentagon procurement.

The House is also likely to continue the ongoing debate over future production of the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet. The White House has called for ending production of the plane, but lawmakers from the 44 states where the plane is built have called for continuing it.

The House spending bill contains several hundred million dollars for building the Lockheed Martin aircraft. But Murtha said he would propose eliminating all funding for the aircraft, after the Senate voted to end production last week as it debated the fiscal 2010 Defense authorization bill.

“The F-22 debate is pretty much over,” said Murtha, who added that he still doubts White House threats that it would veto the bill if it contained funds for the plane.

However, House Republican supporters of the F-22 are not ready to back down. Armed Services ranking member Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) said, “I think most people would agree this is driven by budgetary constraints, not by our military strategy for what is needed.”

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