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Clashes on Syria, spying mark debate on U.S. defense funding bill

The U.S. Capitol Building is pictured in Washington, February 27, 2013.REUTERS/Jason Reed
The U.S. Capitol Building is pictured in Washington, February 27, 2013.REUTERS/Jason Reed

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers clashed over Syria, Afghanistan and government spying on Tuesday as the House of Representatives began debating a $598 billion defense spending bill for 2014, including a Pentagon base budget of $512 billion and $86 billion for the Afghan war.

The confrontations began even before the measure made it to the floor of the House after Republican leaders moved to restrict the number of permitted amendments to 100, with no more than 20 minutes of debate on divisive issues like Syria policy and spying by the National Security Agency.

A final vote on the bill, which includes about $3 billion more than requested by President Barack Obama, is not expected until Wednesday at the earliest. Debate on the thorniest amendments, including on Syria, funding for Egypt and NSA spying, was not likely to begin until Wednesday.

The White House has threatened a presidential veto of the overall bill unless it is part of a broader budget that supports U.S. economic recovery efforts, saying current House proposals cut too much from education, infrastructure and innovation.

The White House joined senior House Republicans in urging lawmakers to oppose an amendment by Michigan Republican Justin Amash, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, that would bar the NSA from collecting telephone call records and other data from people in the United States not specifically under investigation.

The proposed amendment comes after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of an agency surveillance program that collects and stores vast amounts of electronic communications like phone call records and emails.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama welcomed a debate on safeguarding privacy, but opposed Amash's amendment, saying it would "hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community's counterterrorism tools."

Senior House Republicans, including Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, circulated a letter to colleagues urging them to oppose the amendment.

"While many members have legitimate questions about the NSA metadata program, including whether there are sufficient protections for Americans' civil liberties, eliminating this program altogether without careful deliberation would not reflect our duty ... to provide for the common defense," they said.

SYRIA SPLIT

As debate got under way, lawmakers expressed concern over the constraints placed on their ability to discuss contentious issues.

Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, accused Republican leaders of ignoring the "real split" in Congress over the Syrian civil war and denying "any real substantive debate" over whether the United States should intervene in a conflict that has already killed 100,000.

U.S. involvement in Syria so far has been limited to providing humanitarian assistance to refugees and non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. But Obama is moving ahead with lethal aid after determining the government of President Bashar al-Assad has sometimes used chemical weapons.

"The Republican leadership ducked a real important debate when it comes to Syria," McGovern said. "I hope that ... a few years down the road we don't look back ... and express regret that somehow we got sucked into this war without a real debate."

Lawmakers also strongly condemned the Afghan government for trying to charge the U.S. military customs duties to remove American equipment from the country.

They debated a series of amendments aimed at stripping funding from military programs for the Afghans. The bill sets Afghan war funding at $86 billion.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Eric Beech)

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