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U.S. defense bill has W.Va. senators at odds

WHEELING, W.Va. — West Virginia’s senators are split on a bill that would fund the Department of Defense through 2016, an issue that normally cruises to bipartisan approval in Congress but has turned politically charged this year.

The $612 billion National Defense Authorization Act passed the House in a 269-151 vote May 15, but faces a veto threat from President Barack Obama. Earlier this week, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., urged Democrats to stop blocking a vote on the measure in the Senate, as she and other Republicans have accused the president of using the military appropriations bill as a bargaining chip to increase non-defense spending.

During a conference call with reporters Thursday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said his opposition to the bill stems from a provision that adds $38 billion to an “overseas contingency operations” account he said allows the government to fund military operations overseas without congressional approval.

That account, Manchin said, has funded military operations in the Middle East since 2001, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as current missions against Islamic State terrorists.

“We’ve tried about everything you can in that part of the world. … I think we should have a robust debate on the policies we should be pursuing, rather than just throwing $38 billion in a funding process that has no oversight,” Manchin said. “This opens Pandora’s box, as far as I’m concerned, for years and years to come.”

Capito, however, said Senate Democrats are playing politics with a bill that is vital to the nation’s security.

“The fact that they’re holding this bill hostage to move forward with a strategy for more domestic spending for things like the EPA and IRS sends the wrong message, I think, to our troops in the field, to the families who support them and, really for the defense of our country,” she said Tuesday during an event in Washington, D.C.

Manchin said he expects a procedural vote on the National Defense Authorization Act sometime next week. Senate rules require 60 votes for cloture, which means endxing debate on a bill. Republicans hold only 54 seats, so unless some Democrats break ranks, lawmakers could be in for a long stalemate.

Manchin said he doesn’t understand Republicans’ urgency to pass the legislation, noting the current year’s appropriations bill doesn’t expire until December.

“We have six months to work this out. … If the (cloture vote) goes down, then they’ve got to sit down and talk,” he said.

In response to Manchin’s comments Thursday, spokeswoman Amy Graham said Capito is “deeply concerned” about Democrats’ efforts to block the bill, particularly after meeting with troops during a recent visit to the Middle East.

“Too much is at stake for politics to trump our defense policy,” Graham said. “Senator Capito strongly urges her Democratic colleagues to work with Republicans to show their unified support for our men and women in uniform.”

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