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Democrats challenge Obama’s Afghan withdrawal plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic lawmakers fed up with the lingering war inAfghanistan launched a new challenge to President Barack Obama‘s plan for a measured U.S. troop withdrawal over the next year as they resumed debate on Wednesday on a $649 billion defense spending bill.

Democratic members of the House of Representatives proposed a series of amendments to the 2012 fiscal year defense appropriations bill aimed at forcing a speedier U.S. troop withdrawal, including by cutting funding for combat operations.

“The whole premise of this war is wrong. Fighting in Afghanistan does not enhance the security of the United States,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler.

“We should withdraw our troops now, all of them, as rapidly as physically possible.”

Representative James McGovern said Obama‘s Afghan strategy was not sustainable given difficult economic times at home.

“While we serve as an ATM machine for a corrupt government in Kabul, we tell our own people that we have no money for roads and bridges and schools and teachers and police and firefighters and jobs,” he said.

The debate came two weeks after Obama announced his plan to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and another 23,000 by the end of next summer. The remaining 66,000 U.S. troops would be slowly withdrawn until a final transition to Afghan security control in 2014.

Obama‘s decision angered some Republicans and Democrats who had hoped for a speedier withdrawal at a time when U.S. budget deficits have hit $1.4 trillion, and the $14.3 trillion U.S. national debt is leading to demands for a sharp cutback in government spending.

Final votes on the Afghanistan amendments were not expected until Thursday. Lawmakers also planned amendments challenging U.S. involvement in the NATO-led and U.N.-mandated no-fly zone to protect citizens in Libya.

The spending bill being debated by the House envisions a Pentagon base budget of about $530.5 billion and funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan of about $118.7 billion.

Those amounts are about $8 billion less than what Obama had requested.

BATTLE OF THE BANDS

Penny-conscious House lawmakers made little headway in trimming more from Pentagon funding on Wednesday, but the Republican-led chamber did agree to raise spending for U.S. military bands to $320 million, overturning a Democratic bid to cut the request by $120 million.

“The facts about our bands are that they are an integral part of the patriotism that keeps our soldiers’ hearts beating fast,” said Representative John Carter, who introduced the amendment to eliminate the curb on band funding.

Nadler, who opposed the amendment, said it was difficult to justify the funding at a time when social programs for the needy were facing cuts.

“I love John Philip Sousa,” he said, referring to the composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and other marching tunes. “I love military bands, I love marching bands, but people have to eat. And we’re being savaged in the budget that we’re passing and in the negotiations on the debt ceiling.”

Representative Betty McCollum, who had cut $120 million in band funding during committee deliberations, said the Army alone had more than 100 bands employing 4,600 professional musicians and support staff.

Carter said there were some 250 military bands and a band played some 1,200 “musical missions” per 12- to 15-month deployment. He said cutting the band funding would not save American taxpayers “one red cent.”

The House rejected several amendments that would have sliced hundreds of millions of dollars from research and development funding and the secretary of defense’s budget.

Representative Paul Broun sought to eliminate money for military environmental and HIV research, saying they duplicated work done elsewhere.

“Here we see research being conducted by a military that does not focus on the core mission of national security,” Broun said. “HIV research is being conducted … in my home state of Georgia at the Centers for Disease Control as well as the National Institutes of Health.”

But other lawmakers said research on the virus that causes AIDS was a legitimate military function because it poses a threat to military personnel serving overseas in areas where the HIV virus is more widespread.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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