US panel signs off on coastal missile site

By Donna Cassata and Robert Burns, AP

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday backed construction of a missile defense site on the East Coast, rejecting Pentagon arguments that the facility is unnecessary and Democratic complaints that the nearly US$5 billion project amounts to wasteful spending in a time of tight budgets.

In rancorous, lengthy debate, Republicans insisted that the site is necessary in the event that Iran or North Korea develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of attacking the East Coast. Democrats countered that throwing billions at a missile defense system plagued by failures made no sense, especially when the threat from the two nations was highly uncertain and many in Washington are demanding fiscal discipline.

Democratic Rep. John Garamendi offered an amendment to eliminate the project from the Republican-backed bill. On a largely party-line vote, the panel rejected Garamendi’s effort, 33-28.

The committee fleshed out a blueprint for next year that calls for a base defense budget of US$554 billion, including nuclear weapons spending, plus US$88 billion for the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts. That compares with the administration’s proposal of US$551 billion, plus US$88 billion. The all-day session was expected to stretch into the early morning Thursday as the committee dealt with spending on weapons, troops and various policy issues such as the cost of health care for military retirees.

Since the mid-1980s, the Pentagon has spent nearly US$150 billion on missile defense programs and envisions another US$44 billion over the next five years. But it is not looking to construct a facility on the East Coast.