Defense bill sets aside $9 million for Cannon

Staff and wire reports

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Friday 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 bill will make approximately $9 million available to Cannon Air Force Base and also sets funding for the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, and New Mexico’s military bases.

Cannon will receive $1.6 million for an AC-130 hangar and $7.5 for a flight simulator facility for the AC-130 aircraft, according to a news release from Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s office.

“Now that Cannon has an important new mission, we need to ensure it is ready for the transition,” Bingaman said. “This legislation will make that possible.”

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.

The bill, which covers the 2008 budget year, authorizes $696 billion in military spending, including $189 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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 more time to become obvious, particularly in cases of brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the same, Democrats 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.