Defense Panels Add $4.5 Billion to Proposed Pentagon Budget

House and Senate defense panels Wednesday agreed to add $4.5 billion to President Clinton's proposed defense budget, mostly to pay for military hardware and to restore a prescription drug benefit to military retirees.

In offering up their own versions of a military budget for fiscal 2001, which begins Oct. 1, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees agreed to push total defense spending to about $309.8 billion, a 4.4 percent increase over current-year levels.

Both budget plans preserve programs vital to Newport News Shipbuilding. Each provides about $4.1 billion to complete funding for CVN-77, the last Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, and $1.2 billion for the third Virginia-class attack submarine, which will be built jointly by Newport News and Electric Boat Corp. of Groton, Conn.

There is also about $975 million in advance money and research-and-development funding for future carriers and submarines.

"This bill provides for necessary increases in defense spending that are vital to meet the national security challenges the United States faces in the new century," said Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which crafted its budget in secret but held a news conference Wednesday to unveil key provisions.

Local programs were never seriously threatened this year, with both carriers and submarines enjoying broad political support.

Both committees signaled their long-term support for submarines by authorizing - without yet funding - the next five Virginia-class subs, which would get under construction between 2003 and 2006.

That plan holds out the prospect of increasing submarine production from one a year to two by 2006 - an increase the Navy says will be needed just to maintain a fleet of 50 attack subs. A recent classified study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff calls for increasing the submarine fleet to as many as 68 subs to cope with a growing number of intelligence and surveillance missions around the globe.

The budgets also give troops a 3.7 percent pay hike, effective Jan. 1, and gives military retirees access to prescription drugs by mail order or retail pharmacies with no enrollment fee or deductible. Under current law, retirees 65 and over who cannot obtain drugs at military-run pharmacies must obtain them privately at their own expense.

But the proposal stops far short of efforts to give retirees the free health care for life many were promised when they enlisted during World War II and Korea.

Thousands of retirees are scheduled to rally at the Capitol today to press their case for full health care benefits this year. Although a few bills have been introduced to meet that demand, none has the support of the congressional leadership.

"I recognize that at this time they feel the committee has not met their needs," Warner said. But there was not enough money allocated for defense to offer a full health care package that could cost as much as $10 billion a year, he said.

"It's a tough decision to say the buck stops here," Warner added. "It's on my desk. I accept responsibility."

Among the major items added by the Senate committee were tens of millions of dollars for additional helicopters, $430 million for military construction and family housing programs, $347 million for spare parts, and $460 million in advance money for an amphibious assault ship, to be built in Mississippi, that is sought by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.

The House committee was completing its budget Wednesday night and full details were not immediately available. Differences between the two versions will be resolved by a House-Senate conference committee.

Local projects included in the Senate committee plan include $4.4 million for an aircraft maintenance building at Fort Eustis; $5 million for recovery and preservation of the Civil War-era USS Monitor; and $9 million for the Free Electron Laser project at the Thomas Jefferson Lab in Newport News.

In completing a marathon day full of budget amendments, the House committee again rejected an effort to let women in the military obtain abortions at their own expense at military hospitals when they are stationed overseas.

Supporters of the measure say military women abroad deserve the same access to abortion that women in the United States enjoy, provided they are willing to pay for it. But opponents on the heavily male, Republican-controlled committee have argued that military hospitals should not be required to offer such a controversial medical procedure.

Abortion-rights supporters went a step further this year by offering a second amendment to limit the option only to women who are victims of rape and incest. But that measure also failed, on a vote of 29 to 26. Rep. Herbert H. Bateman, R-Newport News, opposed the measure. Rep. Norman Sisisky, D-Petersburg, and Rep. Owen B. Pickett, D-Virginia Beach, supported it.

The committee also expressed renewed concern about allowing women to serve on submarines - the only Navy vessels that remain exclusively male. The committee approved an amendment requiring the Pentagon to notify Congress with 120 days' notice if any change in the all-male policy is proposed.