WASHINGTON (AP) — Over Bush administration objections, the Senate voted Wednesday to sharply limit the military's exemptions from environmental laws that the Pentagon says impede training exercises.
The vote came as the Senate neared completion of a bill authorizing $400.5 billion in 2004 defense programs. A vote on the overall bill was expected today. The House began considering its own defense bill Wednesday.
The change in environmental laws was a victory for Democrats after setbacks on attempts to block research of two types of nuclear weapons.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the environmental vote was a mistake and that he hoped it would be changed when House-Senate negotiators work out a final a version of the bill.
Lawmakers will "better understand how critically important it is for the men and women in uniform to have the kinds of training that will enable them to effectively defend our country," Rumsfeld told reporters after meeting with lawmakers in the Capitol.
The Senate bill originally would have provided the military with exemptions from Endangered Species Act requirements intended to protect rare plants or animals. It was one of several environmental exemptions sought by the Pentagon.
Under an amendment by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., the military would have to develop and fund plans to protect the endangered species on its land. It passed 51-48 with four Republicans voting with Democrats.
"This issue is really about balancing national security with our environmental security — and the Pentagon has shown in the past that we can do it," Lautenberg said.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., rejected Democratic arguments that environmental laws haven't hurt training. He said that in Camp Pendleton, Calif., Marines can train on only 200 yards of 17 miles of shoreline.
"We are not enjoying the state of readiness that we should be, that our troops are entitled to," he said.
Senate Democrats were defeated in attempts to keep the low-yield nuclear weapons ban, though the Senate approved an amendment by Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., that would require the president to seek congressional authorization before developing and producing the weapons.
Low-yield weapons have a blast equivalent to less than five kilotons, about a third as large as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II.
Senate Democrats also failed to cut off funding for the study of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, which might be capable of destroying weapons buried in deep underground bunkers.
Rumsfeld has said the Bush administration wants to only study the weapon and has no plans to develop them. But Democrats are skeptical.
"I don't believe its just a study," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "I believe it's an announced attempt to generate a new generation of nuclear weapons."
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