WASHINGTON - The Senate yesterday passed a defense policy bill that would offer more help to troops returning from combat and set conditions on contractors and pricey weapons programs.
The measure reflects the best Democrats could do this year on their national security agenda while holding such a slim majority. Powerless to overcome GOP objections in the Senate, the bill does not order troops home from Iraq, as Democrats would have liked.
The 90-3 vote follows House approval earlier this week and sends the measure to President Bush to sign, which he is expected to do.
"Caring for our troops and their families must always be our top priority," said Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which helped write the bill.
The bill, which covers the 2008 budget year, authorizes $696 billion in military spending, including $189 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While it does not send money to the Pentagon, it is considered a crucial policy measure because it guides companion spending legislation and dictates the acquisition and management of weapons programs.
The bill would authorize a 3.5 percent pay raise for service members. It also would guarantee that combat veterans receive mental-health evaluations within 30 days of their request and prohibit fee increases to the military's health-care system.
In one provision that is likely to be particularly costly, troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are guaranteed three more years of Veterans Affairs health care after being discharged. Current law gives troops two years to file claims.
Advocates say the extra time is needed because conditions can worsen over time or take longer to become obvious, particularly in cases of brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Democrats also sought to put controls on the Pentagon's hefty weapons and technology budget, including missile defense.
The bill would authorize Bush to spend $10 billion for ballistic-missile defense, about $331 million less than requested. The bill would restrict the money from being used to deploy missile-defense radars in Poland and the Czech Republic until those governments approved the deal and Congress received an independent assessment of the program.
The bill also includes several provisions intended to increase the oversight of contractors and the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan. More specifically, it would require that private security contractors working in a war zone comply with military regulations and orders issued by commanders.
It would establish an auditing system to oversee reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan that would be modeled after the special watchdog for Iraq reconstruction.
Final action on the bill comes as Democrats struggle for a way to pay for combat operations overseas without appearing to support Bush's policies in Iraq.
Some $70 billion in war spending is expected to be attached next week to a separate government-wide spending bill. While Democrats want to tie the money to troop withdrawals, Senate Republicans are insisting the money be provided without strings attached.
Holding a narrow majority and unable to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles, Democrats are expected to back down and provide the money.