LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The House of Representative approved its biggest annual spending bill yesterday with more than $600 billion for the Pentagon. A fifth of that goes for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but war was barely mentioned in a floor debate that went on for hours. Instead, lawmakers clashed over nearly $3 billion in military spending that the White House never requested and the defense secretary says he doesn't need. NPR's David Welna has the story.
DAVID WELNA: If there's anything Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha arguably does better than any other member of the House it's bringing home the bacon in the form of defense contracts. This year, Murtha, who chairs the Defense Appropriations Panel, snared nearly $80 million in defense earmarks for his district, funding the Pentagon never requested. Which is why it seemed odd that Murtha should offer an amendment yesterday, striking nearly $400 million from the Defense Bill. It's money that he and his committee had added as a down payment on a dozen F-22 fighter jets. He explained to his colleagues that with a veto threat against the F-22s from the White House and a Senate vote last week to kill the stealth fighter program, he was not going to win this spending fight.
Congressman JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): The political climate has changed substantially. We're in a situation where the president's hard over and we're doing the best we can to make sure we have robust funding for the fleet. That's what I intend to do, or I hope when this amendment passes that's what we'll have done.
WELNA: That did not persuade Utah Republican Bob Bishop, who chided defense secretary Robert Gates for insisting that the nation's fleet of 187 F-22s is enough.
Congressman BOB BISHOP (Republican, Utah): The only person that said 187 are appropriated is the secretary of defense. There is no study to verify that number. That number is a political number, not a military number.
WELNA: But in a win for the White House, Murtha's amendment striking the F-22 funding passed by more than a hundred vote margin. Then some members started pushing for more cuts. Massachusetts Democrat John Tierney sought to strike $80 million for a kinetic interceptor missile program the Pentagon no longer wants.
Congressman JOHN TIERNEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): We have to at some point in time start looking at all of our budgets, and that includes the defense budget, to make sure that we're not putting money out that needs to be put towards other priorities. Here you have the missile defense agency's director itself saying that this program should be terminated. You have the secretary of defense and two administrations saying the program should be terminated.
WELNA: But you also had defense spending chairman Murtha.
Congressman MURTHA: The program has already spent a billion dollars and we ought to get something out of it.
WELNA: Nearly every Republican and more than half the Democrats sided with Murtha. The money for the unwanted missile program remained. Arizona Republican Jeff Flake then sought to knock out funding for more than 500 earmarks sought by private for-profit firms, which he noted, also contribute generously to the lawmakers who sponsor those earmarks.
Congressman JEFF FLAKE (Republican, Arizona): I simply do not believe, and I think the country agrees, that we should be doing no bid contracts for private companies. As much as the members on the other side of the aisle and this side of the aisle, as much as the members of the appropriations subcommittee on defense will say that these are going to be competed out, we know that they won't be.
WELNA: Some lawmakers took offense at that. One was Florida's Bill Young, the top Republican on the Defense Spending Panel.
Congressman BILL YOUNG (Republican, Florida): Anyone listening might think that Congress is all a bunch of crooks and that American free enterprise is sneaking in the back door to make money, and that the Congress and the Department of Defense are at odds at all the time. Well that's not true.
WELNA: Another member of the appropriations committee, North Carolina Democrat David Price, said later that the truth of the matter is that the Pentagon, in fact, does want the projects that lawmakers earmarked.
Congressman DAVID PRICE (Democrat, North Carolina): I can just speak for my own earmarks which have to do with technologies developed in my district. All of these things we knew before we asked, that the Pentagon wanted them, and when the staff checked, does the Pentagon want them? Yes, the answer is yes. This is very useful. It's kind of a division of labor that's gone on for a long time.
WELNA: But it did not come at the budget requests, nonetheless.
Congressman PRICE: No, and it would be better if it did.
WELNA: But that did not keep 400 House members from voting for the defense bill. Only 30 opposed it.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.