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Congress reaches accord on defense bill

By Associated Press
Published November 7, 2003

WASHINGTON - House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement Thursday on a $400.5-billion defense bill that would raise soldiers' pay, give the Pentagon more control over its civilian employees and lift a ban on research on low-yield nuclear weapons.

The bill authorizing 2004 defense programs is likely to be approved by the House on Friday and by the Senate early next week. It will then go to President Bush for his signature.

The House and Senate approved separate versions of the bill in the summer, but a dispute over expanding "Buy America" rules bogged down negotiations.

A proposal by committee chairman Duncan Hunter of California would have required that 65 percent of components in items purchased by the Pentagon be made in America, compared with 50 percent under current law. Certain items, such as machine tools and tires, would have to be made in America.

Details of the final language weren't available, but congressional staff said the 65 percent requirement would be dropped. They said the final language was expected to require the Pentagon to examine how domestic purchases could be increased and to bar purchases from countries that have refused to provide materials because of their objections to U.S. military operations.

The bill would raise soldiers' pay by an average of 4.15 percent. It would also extend an increase in monthly combat pay to $225 a month from $150, and increase a monthly family separation allowance to $250 from $100.

The civilian personnel issue was one of the Pentagon's top priorities. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he needed more flexibility in hiring and firing workers and granting raises.

According to lawmakers and congressional staff, the bill also:

- Includes a compromise plan to lease 20 Boeing 767 planes as midair refueling tankers and buy another 80.

- Allows foreign-born U.S. soldiers to seek citizenship after one year's service. Their immediate families could also become citizens. The change would follow an executive order by Bush to speed the process for foreign-born soldiers to become citizens.

- Approves a $22-billion plan to partly overturn rules preventing disabled veterans from receiving some of their retirement pay.

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