House panel OKs defense bill, limits Pakistan aid

WASHINGTON (AP) — Frustrated with Pakistan’s fight in the war on terrorism and the long-running war in Afghanistan, a House panel on Tuesday approved a defense spending bill that would impose limits on U.S. aid to Islamabad and would create a special bipartisan group to examine America’s future role in the conflict.

By voice vote, the House Appropriations Committee approved the legislation that would provide $530 billion to the Pentagon and $119 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill is $9 billion less than President Barack Obama requested.

The bill provides the money for the military’s ships, aircraft, tanks and personnel, and largely tracks the defense blueprint that the House approved last month. It reflects both the war fatigue even among the most hawkish lawmakers and the widespread doubts about Pakistan’s reliability in counter-terrorism. The U.S. raid and killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan has left many lawmakers questioning Islamabad’s eagerness and whether billions in American financial assistance is being wasted.

The defense spending bill would withhold 75 percent of the $1.1 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan until the administration reports to Congress on how it would spend the money. The committee on Tuesday went a step further, adopting an amendment by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., that would give Congress 30 days to review the report before deciding whether the money should be spent.

Pakistan’s “performance or non-performance rubs a lot of people the wrong way,” Flake said. The panel approved the amendment by voice vote.

With the Afghanistan war approaching its 10th year, sentiment is growing in Congress for the U.S. to speed up the withdrawal of the 100,000 American troops in the country. The committee adopted an amendment by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., that would create an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group, a bipartisan organization to conduct an independent assessment of the conflict and U.S. interests.

The group would be modeled on the Iraq Study Group, the blue-ribbon panel that in 2006 called for a gradual troop pullback and stepped-up diplomacy to help extricate the United States from Iraq.

“We basically need fresh eyes,” Wolf said.

In a fresh sign of the war weariness, Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Appropriations defense subcommittee who consistently has stood with the White House on national security, said the administration “has to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.” Dicks said the question is whether the nation helps its citizens or “does nation building.”

The death of bin Laden and the billions of dollars in foreign aid as the nation struggles economically have provided impetus to the push to move out troops from Afghanistan.

“Although we are engaged in wars on several fronts, there is also a battle being waged at home — against skyrocketing, dangerous deficits,” said Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “No bill or department should be immune from scrutiny during these difficult financial times.”

Against that backdrop, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., succeeded in persuading the committee to limit the amount of money for military bands and other musical operations to $200 million.

She was unable, however, to get the committee to adopt an amendment targeting the millions the military spends to sponsor NASCAR races, fishing and wrestling. McCollum said two wars and a fiscal crisis make the cuts imperative, but Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., argued that the sponsorships were effective recruiting tools for the all-volunteer force.

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