WASHINGTON: US lawmakers passed a sweeping $606 billion defense bill that exceeds a budget cap and faces a veto threat from the White House for failing to sufficiently rein in spending.
The bill would provide $518 billion for the Pentagon and an additional $88.5 billion for overseas contingency operations, specifically the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts, for the fiscal year that begins October 1.
The 2013 Defense Department spending bill had originally come in at $519 billion, an increase of $1 billion over 2012 spending, but in a surprise move just before the final vote lawmakers approved an amendment bringing the spending into line with current figures.
It's still roughly $2 billion more than President Barack Obama requested, and about $8 billion above the cap set by last year's Budget Control Act.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed Thursday's bill by a vote of 326-90.
Democrats and Republicans are promising a major budget tussle this election year as the two sides square off over whether to raise taxes for wealthy Americans as well as slash federal spending in a bid to pare down the skyrocketing debt.
US lawmakers failed to reach a deal last year over how to reduce the long-term deficit by $1.2 trillion, and default spending cuts are scheduled to kick in next January that could see the defense budget slashed by an additional $50 billion in 2013.
House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers praised the bill, saying it "supports and takes care of our troops at the highest level possible, keeps America at the forefront of defense technologies, and boosts key training and readiness programs to prepare our troops for combat and peacetime missions."
"But in this environment of fiscal austerity, we must also recognize that even the Pentagon should not have carte blanche when it comes to discretionary spending," the Republican Rogers said, insisting that the bill makes "common-sense decisions" on spending cuts.
Some Democrats were keen on making even deeper cuts, but three of their proposals to slash some $23 billion from the bill were rejected.
"The bloated Pentagon budget must be addressed if we are serious about solving our nation's deficit," said congresswoman Barbara Lee, who authored several cost-saving amendments which were turned down.
But while Republicans have stood firm in their desire to see defense spending levels maintained, Lee had a partner in Republican Mick Mulvaney, who authored the measure which successfully cut the bill by $1 billion.
"Austerity to me means spending less," the Tea Party conservative said. "Total government spending will be up this year. We're still facing a $1 trillion deficit. We need to do better to get our spending under control."
The bill saw lawmakers express their disgust with Russia's stance on Syria, as they voted overwhelmingly for an amendment that ends the Pentagon's arms contract with a major Russian defense firm which provides weapons to the regime in Damascus.
House Democrat Jim Moran, who introduced the measure, lambasted the Pentagon for its contract with Rosoboronexport, which he said sells mortars, sniper rifles and attack helicopters to Syria.
The Pentagon has procured some 33 Mi-17 attack helicopters from the Russian firm and which are to be used by the Afghan military after US operations wind down in Afghanistan.
"I should think it's troubling to all of us that we are purchasing helicopters from a Russian firm that is directly complicit in the deaths of thousands of innocent Syrian men, women and children," Moran said.
The Senate will now craft its version of the defense bill, but its fate is unknown. The House has passed several spending measures but the Senate largely balks at them because they overshoot the spending agreement reached last year. (AFP)
The move, which will allow Afghanistan special military and financial privileges, formally came in a memorandum from US President Barack Obama to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) signed between Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in May allows the United States to keep a limited military presence in Afghanistan to train its troops and conduct anti-terror missions.
The designation as a major non-NATO ally will usher Afghanistan into an exclusive club of nations that enjoy privileged ties with the United States.
Such status allows members priority delivery of defense articles and the right to stockpile US military hardware.
Major non-NATO allies also benefit from US government loan guarantee programs which can back up loans issued by private banks to finance arms exports.
But major non-NATO allies do not benefit from security guarantees that are enjoyed by full members of the western alliance.
Obama vowed at the NATO summit in Chicago in May that Afghanistan would not be abandoned by the international community at the end of the foreign combat mission there in 2014.
NATO leaders have already endorsed plans to hand Afghan forces the lead for security across their country by mid-2013 while foreign troops will gradually switch their focus from combat to support mode.
NATO has a total of 130,000 soldiers helping the Karzai government fight an insurgency by hardline Taliban militants, and they are due to withdraw by the end of 2014 when the transition process is complete.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) does not commit the United States to any specific military troop levels or funding and states that Washington does not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan.
It also includes commitments on promoting democracy, good governance, advancing long-term security with the provision of foreign funds for the Afghan forces and states Washington will not use Afghan territory as a launching point for attacks on other countries.
Other major non-NATO allies of the United States include Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand.
The Britain-based group said one woman was killed by a stray bullet in the Damascus suburb of Douma and two other women died in Maaret al-Numan, in the northwest province of Idlib.
One civilian was killed by sniper fire in Deblan, a neighbourhood of the flashpoint central city of Homs which has been under attack for weeks by regime forces trying to root out rebels.
Four soldiers also died in the clashes with rebel troops in Maaret al-Numan, the Observatory said.
Activists reported violence in several other towns in the province of Homs or Hama.
The Observatory said more than 70 percent of the population of Saraqeb in northwest Idlib province has fled in recent days in the face of a government assault that began on Saturday.
It said at least 18 civilians have been killed there and more than 63 homes torched.
The uprising in Syria began as a popular revolt in March of last year but has transformed into an insurgency that many fear will lead to a full-blown civil war.
Monitors say more than 9,100 people have died in the revolt against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. (AFP)