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House passes bill that protects Guard unit

The House on Friday passed a huge defense authorization bill that would keep an Air National Guard unit based in Niagara Falls operating for at least another year, but the measure could face big problems both in the Senate and if it reaches the president's desk in its current form.

That's because the $642 billion bill busts last year's agreed-upon budget cap by $8 billion, and because it allows for the indefinite detention of enemy combatants. Those moves have drawn fire from Democrats -- who control the Senate -- and a veto threat from the Obama administration.

The Senate Armed Services Committee plans to begin marking up its version of the legislation next week, and a bipartisan group of senators is expected to push to keep the Niagara unit and other Air National Guard units open.

But disagreements on those other aspects of the bill portend a long, nasty fight ahead.

"Anything can happen in the Senate," said Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, an Amherst Democrat who pushed for an amendment to the bill last week to save the Niagara unit and other Guard units around the country. "But this was a critical first step."

It was also a hugely controversial first step, despite the overwhelming 299-120 vote in favor of the defense authorization legislation. Hochul voted for the bill, as did Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning.

The measure has drawn the ire of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who lashed out last week against Republican lawmakers who added numerous projects to the bill that the Pentagon doesn't want.

"When Congress restores funds to protect particular constituencies that may not be critical to our national defense capabilities, then they risk upending the kind of careful balance that we've worked very hard to achieve," Panetta said last week.

And earlier this week, the White House issued a statement that was even more critical:

"If the cumulative effects of the bill impede the ability of the administration to execute the new defense strategy and to properly direct scarce resources, the president's senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill," the statement said.

The bill includes language making it harder for Obama to shrink the nation's nuclear arsenal as called for under a 2010 treaty with Russia.

It keeps in operation ships and planes that the Pentagon wanted to mothball, and it establishes a missile defense site at a yet-to-be determined location on the East Coast, which the Pentagon also opposes.

Republicans defended all that extra spending as essential to keeping the country safe.

But some of the 104 Democrats who opposed the measure called it a budget-buster, and pushed a measure -- voted down, 252-170 -- to pare funding in the bill to the level of last summer's budget deal. Higgins supported that amendment while Hochul and Reed opposed it.

Hochul conceded, though, that she opposed that East Coast missile defense system and other initiatives in the measure.

While the measure sets the Pentagon's spending limits for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, it also includes a controversial provision that allows the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects -- even if they are U.S. citizens.

That provision mirrors one included in legislation last year that President Obama, in a signing statement, promised to ignore.

An attempt to strip the detention provision from the bill failed in a 238-182 vote. Hochul and Higgins supported that attempt, while Reed did not.

Despite such controversies, Hochul said she was hopeful that the measure protecting the 107th Airlift Wing in Niagara Falls, and similar units nationwide, would survive the rough legislative road ahead.

For one thing, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is pushing to save the 107th in the Senate version of the defense bill, Hochul said.

And for another, she noted that the effort to save the unit had come a long way -- and that she's also still pursuing a possible alternative mission for the 107th, as well as a Customs and Border Protection facility for the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.