By RICHARD LARDNERAssociated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - A Senate panel on Tuesday approved a defense spending bill for the 2014 fiscal year that seeks to reverse the most severe impacts of the across-the-board budget cuts on the armed forces by adding nearly $4.5 billion to cover shortfalls in military training and equipment maintenance programs.
But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, said that the cuts, known as sequestration, have to be stopped because they are forcing Congress to play "whack-a-mole" with the defense budget. For every program that receives a funding boost, another program takes a cut, Durbin said.
"We cannot continue like this," he said.
If Congress and the White House cannot agree on a plan to undo sequestration, the Pentagon will have to slice $52 billion from its budget for the 2014 fiscal year that begins October 1.
Overall, the bill provides just over $594 billion in spending for the military, with close to $78 billion of the total for the war in Afghanistan.
The subcommittee's bill authorizes a 1 percent pay raise for military personnel and Defense Department civilian employees. It also includes $25 million to implement a program within all the military branches to provide victims of sexual assault with legal assistance and support.
The panel's bill slows production of the F-35 jet fighter, the Pentagon's most expensive weapons acquisition program and an aircraft with a troubled testing record. The bill allows the Pentagon to buy 29 aircraft in 2014, but cuts money sought for the following year to ramp up production of the jet so the military can focus instead on testing, design and development.
"Aggressive overlap in designing, testing and procuring this aircraft earlier in its history got us into serious trouble, and this (panel) is eager to avoid a repeat of these problems," Durbin said.
To improve security at U.S. diplomatic facilities overseas, the spending package adds $48 million to create 35 more Marine Corps security guard detachments to protect these outposts. Lawmakers have increased their focus on diplomatic security in the wake of the deadly raid on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in the Sept. 11 attack last year.
The subcommittee's bill includes a provision that prohibits any U.S. money from being used to personally benefit Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The provision was adopted in response to reports that Karzai allegedly received cash payments from the CIA. There is growing frustration with Karzai on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have criticized him for delaying negotiations on a security agreement that would govern a post-2014 military presence by the U.S.
"There were suggestions in the press that he was getting walking around money," Durbin said. "He denies it. We explicitly say it cannot happen under the law."
The full Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet Thursday to consider the defense spending bill.
The House of Representatives last week passed a $598.3 billion defense spending bill for 2014 by a vote of 315-109. The House bill would provide the Pentagon with $512.5 billion for weapons, personnel, aircraft and ships plus $85.8 billion for Afghanistan war operations.
The House bill has drawn a veto threat from the White House, which argues that it would force the administration to cut education, health research and other domestic programs in order to boost spending for the Pentagon.
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