In a show of support for an administration at war, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill Friday that would grant the Pentagon exemptions to landmark environmental laws, authorize a major overhaul of the civilian defense bureaucracy and lift a decade-old ban on government research into "low-yield" nuclear weapons.
The bill, a milestone in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's quest to reshape the Pentagon, also drops objections to politically painful military base closures scheduled for two years from now.
The House voted, 362 to 40, for the fiscal 2004 defense authorization, reflecting solid bipartisan support for defense programs at a time when U.S. armed forces are engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Senate is expected to follow suit early next week on the $401-billion measure and send it to President Bush for his signature.
"There's so much in this bill that takes care of the troops, their families, their needs, their capability of waging war," said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who voted for it. "And we are at war."
After the House vote, the president praised the bill for making "good progress toward transforming and modernizing our military so that it is best prepared to protect Americans."
The bill would hand Rumsfeld and the administration many victories and few setbacks.
It would authorize a rewrite of decades-old civil service rules for about 700,000 civilians who work for the Pentagon, giving Rumsfeld new authority to move workers from one job to another and enhancing his bargaining position with labor unions. It would omit provisions the House passed this year to limit base closures scheduled to begin in 2005.
The final bill, crafted this week in negotiations between House and Senate Republicans, also drops restrictions the House had sought to force the Pentagon to buy more arms and components from domestic manufacturers. And it includes a repeal of a law prohibiting research into nuclear weapons with an explosive force of less than 5 kilotons. The Pentagon wants to consider these low-yield nuclear devices as a potential addition to its arsenal -- a move critics say could prompt a new arms race.
In all, there was plenty of evidence of Rumsfeld's muscle in the bill. Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), a champion of the provisions that create a new "National Security Personnel System," said the Defense secretary deserves a chance to shake up the Pentagon.
"It's a multibillion-dollar company," Davis said. "We're allowing him to run it like a company instead of a bureaucracy. We need to give him more flexibility."
A priority for Rumsfeld and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was securing exemptions to the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection acts to remove obstacles to military training exercises. The exemptions were included despite a 51-48 Senate vote in May to narrow the Pentagon's proposed changes to the environmental laws. At the time of the Senate vote, Rumsfeld termed the action "a mistake" that he would seek to undo. He succeeded, and the Senate language vanished from the bill.
"It is what we wanted and needed to maintain our readiness and provide our sailors with the training they deserve before they're asked to sail into harm's way on our nation's behalf," said Lt. Cmdr. Joseph "Cappy" Surette, a Navy spokesman. "We work in the ocean, it's our environment, and we take our role of protecting not only the nation but the environment very seriously."
Critics said exempting the Pentagon from the environmental laws would allow the military to disturb whales and dolphins with sonar and underwater explosives and encroach on lands that are habitat for endangered birds and mammals. The new exemptions follow congressional action last year to allow the military to bypass provisions of law protecting migratory birds.
"The Pentagon is trying to exploit the unfortunate events of the past two years by asking us to sacrifice our natural heritage under the guise of national security," said Karen Wayland, acting legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group. "The United States has the most powerful military in the world, and the Pentagon built that fighting force while complying with our environmental laws."
Rumsfeld did not get his way on everything. He accepted some limits on his personnel-management authority imposed by the Senate. And he was forced to back down from his initial opposition to expansion of certain veterans' benefits.
In July, Rumsfeld had threatened to recommend a veto if the bill expanded retirement benefits for veterans who also collect disability checks, an issue known as "concurrent receipt."
But the final measure would do just that.
Under its provisions, many veterans who retired after 20 years in the military with significant service-related disabilities would be eligible for new government benefits, at a 10-year cost of $22 billion. As many as 250,000 retirees could be in line to receive larger monthly checks starting in January, Republicans said.
The bill also would force the White House to accept revisions to an Air Force plan to acquire 100 specially designed Boeing 767s to bolster an aging fleet of refueling tankers. Instead of leasing all of the jetliners, as the administration proposed at first, the Air Force would lease 20 and buy 80.
And it includes a nonmilitary initiative the administration did not seek: a $7.6-billion, seven-year grant program to hire firefighters across the country. That provision, similar in some respects to a police-hiring program implemented during the Clinton administration over Republican objections, is sure to draw attention in California and other Western states scorched this year by wildfires.
The bill also includes several provisions to help an estimated 50,000 immigrants serving in the military on active duty or in the reserves. These immigrants, who are foreign nationals but legal permanent residents, would be able to apply for U.S. citizenship after one year of peacetime service instead of three years. The bill would extend immigration benefits to green card troops and their families, including special aid for close relatives of soldiers killed on duty.
More than 3,000 noncitizen troops have served in the Iraq campaign, lawmakers say, many of them Californians. At least 14 have been killed.
Voting for the bill were 218 Republicans and 144 Democrats.
A Vermont independent joined 39 Democrats in opposition, among them Californians Anna G. Eshoo of Atherton, Sam Farr of Carmel, Bob Filner of San Diego, Michael M. Honda of San Jose, Barbara Lee of Oakland, Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, George Miller of Martinez, Pete Stark of Hayward, Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, Diane E. Watson of Los Angeles, Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles and Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma.
Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles was one of two Democrats who voted "present."
Three Californians did not vote: Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk). Two Democratic presidential candidates, Reps. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, also missed the vote.
Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this report.