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WASHINGTON (AP) – A House Armed Services Committee panel endorsed hefty pay raises for all military personnel Tuesday and a 50 percent increase in defense health service operations while paving the way for disabled military retirees to keep more benefits.

The plan offered by President Bush amounts to “the strongest, most robust proposal in years,” said Rep. John M. McHugh, R-N.Y., chairman of the personnel subcommittee. He said the pay raise alone was the largest since 1982.

The full Armed Services Committee is to complete work on the $343 billion defense authorization bill Wednesday, with a House vote planned for September, after the August recess.

In anticipation, the research and development subcommittee on Tuesday approved spending $37.7 billion – $100 million more than the president’s request – including $8.16 billion for a missile defense system, said Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.

The missile defense spending fell $135 million short of Bush’s request as the panel found some savings, such as a trim of a $28 million increase Bush wanted for space-based laser development, the “Star Wars” part of the program.

The military procurement subcommittee, meanwhile, added $700 million for a variety of projects as it approved its part of the budget.

Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, the top Democrat on that panel, dismissed the additional funding as “Nothing. That’s not even one destroyer.” The budget “totally underfunds national shipbuilding” by authorizing only six new ships a year when 21 go out of service annually, and at this rate, the current 313 ship Navy will drop to 180 within a decade, he said.

The pay hikes, to start Jan. 1, amount to $6.9 billion, a 9.2 percent increase for a new total of $82.3 billion for personnel. There would be across-the-board increases of 5 percent for officers and 6 percent for enlisted personnel, plus raises of 6.3 percent to 10 percent for noncommissioned officers and mid-grade commissioned officers.

McHugh said raises would average 6.9 percent. Without the legislation, there would have been a 4.6 percent across-the-board increase.

Health operations, meanwhile, would be boosted by $6 billion to $18 billion.

The bill also could eventually enable military retirees to receive VA disability benefits without losing any retirement pay. Now, they lose a dollar of pay for every dollar of disability benefits, and most wind up taking just the disability pay because it’s tax-free, a committee aide said.

To become law – at an estimated cost of $3 billion a year – Bush would have to submit legislation with offsetting cuts in other programs to pay for it, and Congress would have to approve them.

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