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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush: Having His Way -- Nice and Simple II

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Before adjourning for the winter holidays, the U.S. Congress passed the defense budget for 2003, and there were a few small surprises. America's elected representatives:

Stopped speculation that a U.S. National Missile Defense system, if it's ever built, might use nuclear weapon-tipped interceptors to shoot down incoming missiles. Defense Department officials had flirted with that idea earlier this year -- after all, the antiquated 1960s-era anti-missile system around Moscow boasts about 100 nuclear-armed interceptors ready to defend the Kremlin. House Republicans officially encouraged the Pentagon to look into that bright Soviet idea. But the Democratic Senate, in its final days, shot them down.

Insisted on substantial oversight over the multi-billion-dollar missile defense program, rejecting a White House request for a blank check. There will now be a one-time review of the costs, performance record and military utility of a missile defense system. In other words, Congress is wistfully demanding evidence it will work.

Refused to permit work on low-yield nuclear weapons, and slowed, but did not stop, work on a nuclear "bunker buster." The administration is intrigued by the possibility of deploying "mini-nukes" in otherwise conventional war situations. Arms control groups counter that use of any nuclear weapon crosses a dangerous and unnecessary line.

Sailed to the rescue of the Nunn-Lugar programs, which work to secure weapons of mass destruction, and related materials and knowledge, in the former Soviet Union. The Congress provided more than $1 billion in funding for those programs at the Energy Department, and freed up previously allocated money at the Defense Department for destroying Russian chemical weapons stocks.

Refused to approve the Defense Department's request for exemption from seven environmental laws.

So despite all the talk of new ways to make and use nuclear weapons, Congress has made that harder to do. It has denied the Pentagon permission to hold itself above environmental law, and it has demanded the government do more to help secure and destroy Russia's arsenals.

Collectively, it almost sounds like good news -- a series of small victories for common sense.

Very, very small victories, says John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World, an arms control group that lobbies in Washington. "If you look at it, it's an almost $400 billion budget, and the president got pretty much everything he wanted," Isaacs says.

And for every "victory for common sense," there's some backsliding in this bill.

Consider missile defense, for example. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may have to endure a (gasp!) one-time review of the controversial program's work. But the fiscal 2003 Defense Authorization bill still includes $7.6 billion to play with. That's nearly five times more than is being spent to secure anthrax, sarin nerve gas, enriched uranium and other proliferation worries across the former Soviet Union -- this for a highly hypothetical future system that, even if it did work as advertised, would be helpless before the al-Qaidas of the world.

This is why missile defense is low on the to-do list of most Americans. Asked in October to choose between missile defense or a prescription drug benefit, 51 percent chose the drug benefit and only 25 percent the missile shield. Americans also chose spending on homeland security over missile defense by 57 percent to 15 percent.

The defense spending bill is also a slap in the face for some 500,000 disabled U.S. veterans. Such veterans are now barred from receiving both their military retirement pay and their veteran's disability benefits. A Senate amendment would have struck down this ban on "concurrent receipt." Instead, the defense bill was cunningly recrafted so that only certain veterans -- those with 20-plus years of service and a Purple Heart, among other conditions -- get help.

So goes the last hurrah of the Democrat-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee. Democrats this year got to draft the spending bills, leaving the Republicans to pick and choose their fights. Next year, Republicans will draw up the legislative agenda -- and leave Democrats scrambling to respond. If billions for missile defense, crumbs for veterans and ambivalence about "bunker-buster" nukes is the best the Democrats could offer this year, one wonders what the Republican New Year might bring.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a Washington-based fellow of The Nation Institute [www.thenation.com].