WASHINGTON - The Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a $401.3 billion defense bill that gives the Pentagon greater control over its civilian work force and eases environmental restrictions on the military.
The bill authorizing 2004 defense programs, and a separate $9.3 billion construction measure containing millions for bases in Alaska, now goes to President Bush for his signature.
Democrats joined Republicans in the 95-3 vote, despite their objections to the broader Pentagon authority. They stressed the measure would provide new benefits to both active duty soldiers and veterans.
But the bill was opposed by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who said it "transfers vast, unchecked powers to the Defense Department while avoiding any break with the business-as-usual approach to increasing defense spending."
The bill is $1.5 billion more than the amount request by Bush and about 2.2 percent more than Congress approved last year. It was approved by the House on Friday in a 362-40 vote.
The bill also lifts a decade-old ban on research into low-yield nuclear weapons and authorizes $15 million for continued research into the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, capable of destroying deep underground bunkers. Republicans say the United States needs to adapt its nuclear arsenal to defend against terrorism and other modern threats. Democrats say the change could trigger a new arms race and increase the risk of nuclear war.
The bill does not provide the money for military programs. Most of the funding will come from a $368 billion defense appropriations bill signed by Bush on Sept. 30.
Additional funds for military construction projects would be provided under a separate $9.3 billion measure approved by the Senate in a 98-0 vote Wednesday. The House approved the measure last week.
Among the measures for Alaska are projects at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks: $1.5 million for chapel expansion, $1.5 million for a gymnasium addition and $71.6 million for phase 5 of the Bassett Hospital replacement.
At Fort Richardson in Anchorage, the bill contains $8.2 million for a 60-person barracks complex and $2.5 million for maintenance facilities,
The bill also contains $1.5 million for planning and design of an unmanned aerial vehicle maintenance facility at the Donnelly Training Area; $3.1 million for a maintenance shop for the Army National Guard in Juneau; $246,000 for Alaska Army Guard Scout storage facilities at Manokotak, Toksook Bay and Napaskiak; and $1 million for Alaska Army Guard Scout Readiness Centers at Angoon and White Mountain.
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