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US Congress Nears Approval of  Largest Ever US Defense Budget

The Senate has overwhelmingly passed, by a 95-3 vote, the largest defense spending bill in U.S. history. The measure must be reconciled with a House-passed version before a final bill is sent to President Bush for his signature.

The $355 billion defense bill is $11 billion less than President Bush requested.

But its size is still significant, as Democratic Whip Harry Reid of Nevada noted, it is "the largest defense bill in the history of the world."

The bill would spend $34 billion more on defense programs next year over the current year.

Most of the cut from the president's request, $10 billion, which he wanted for a war contingency fund, is being set aside for the time being. Lawmakers did not believe the administration adequately specified how it wanted to spend the money.

The measure includes nearly $7 billion for the effort to develop a missile defense system. The bill also sets up an $814 million fund that the president could use either for missile defense or the fight against terrorism.

The legislation provides money for, among other things, 15 C-17 cargo aircraft, 21 Blackhawk and 11 Osprey helicopters, and 23 F-22 stealth fighters. It also includes a 4.1 percent pay raise for U.S. troops.

An amendment offered by Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, makes it easier for the United States to help Russia meet its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Treaty.

"We are working in this country to reduce our chemical weapons," he said, "and we hope to do so in the 10 years that we have pledged to do so under the treaty. The Russians have a whole lot more of them, and my point is that it is not a lack of good will but of money, lack of technical support."

The bill also would provide $417 million to help former Soviet states dismantle and secure their nuclear arsenals.