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Critics: Congress Expands 'Slush Funds' in Defense Bill

Congress passed the annual defense bill, setting the stage for the Senate to vote on a massive spending deal designed to keep the government -- including the Pentagon -- open through September.

The Senate late Friday voted 89-11 to approve the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets policy and spending limits for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The House of Representatives approved the measure last week. Now, it heads to the White House for President Obama's signature.

The passage of the NDAA means the Senate is free to vote, possibly by next week, on the spending bill, called the Omnibus Appropriations Act, which would let the Defense Department and other agencies actually spend the money.

The defense bill authorizes slightly smaller pay raises and housing allowances for troops, funding for numerous weapons systems from the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the Cold War-era A-10 Warthog attack aircraft, and expanded military operations against Islamic extremists in the Middle East.

Nicknamed "McLevin" by journalists and defense wonks, the legislation marked the culmination of the careers of Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, a Republican from California, and Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, the retiring chairmen of the congressional armed services committees.

McKeon gave his farewell address last week. "Remember the great sacrifice our troops are making around the world," he said. "Right now, they are walking patrol in the mountains of Afghanistan ... They are standing on the sand of Iraq, risking everything against a brutal enemy ... They do it for us."

On Tuesday, Levin gave an emotional farewell speech on the floor of the Senate in which he paid tribute to the sacrifices of service members, particularly over the past decade of U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Congress has come together over the years to make improvements in pay, benefits and health care for the men and women of the military; to reform the way in which we buy the weapons they use to carry out their missions; to adopt policies to protect them from sexual assault; to provide improved education benefits through a modern GI Bill; and to reform the way in which we care for our wounded warriors," he said.

Levin added, "We are training and equipping the militaries of nations under assault by extremists and religious fanatics so that those nations can depend more on themselves for their security, and less on America’s sons and daughters."

The bill authorizes $585 billion in total funding, including $495.5 billion for the Pentagon's base budget, $63.7 billion for its so-called overseas contingency operations, or OCO -- including $5 billion for training and operations against the militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS -- and about $25.8 billion for defense-related Energy Department programs.

While most lawmakers hailed the legislation, which Congress has approved for 53 years in a row, others criticized it for including non-defense-related provisions and leaders for not allowing amendments to be debated.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, was among the 11 lawmakers who voted against the bill. He cited among the problematic provisions the plans to arm Syrian rebels through 2016 and what he said was language approving in the U.S. an "extreme land grab" that restricts more than a half-million new acres of property from productive use.

"Although this legislation contains a number of individual provisions I support, it is fundamentally flawed in that it neither protects our most basic rights as American citizens, nor safeguards the vital national security interests of the United States," he said in a release.

Groups on both sides of the political divide also blasted the legislation for not bringing fiscal discipline to the Pentagon.

"Preventing the Defense Department from retiring the aging A-10, even though the Air Force itself wants to retire it; blocking the Army's plans to retire any Army National Guard Apache helicopters next year; spending billions more on the flawed F-35; and authorizing President Obama's plan to arm Syrian rebels are just a few of the provisions in this bill that give us pause," Jonathan Bydlak, president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, said in a statement.

Angela Canterbury, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said the war budget essentially amounts to a slush fund.

"This account has effectively become an unaccountable slush fund and a convenient escape from the Budget Control Act spending caps for the Pentagon. "Unfortunately, this irresponsible idea is catching on -- in the NDAA Congress created a brand new off-budget account for nuclear submarines (the National Sea-based Deterrence Fund). Apparently, slush funds are the new black at the Pentagon -- an unacceptable attempt to get back in the black with the budget caps."

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