The U.S. Senate is nearing a vote on a $454 billion defense spending bill, which includes money to continue military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The massive spending bill, which funds Department of Defense programs for the next budget year beginning October 1, includes $50 billion for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We believe it addresses key requirements for readiness, quality of life and transformation of the force. It honors the commitment we have to our armed forces, it helps ensure they will have continued first-rate training, modernized equipment and quality infrastructure. It provides the much-needed funds to continue the global war against terrorists," said Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican.

The Senate voted to add $13 billion to the bill for repairing and replacing equipment damaged in the harsh environments of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senate Democrats, citing military assessments, criticized the Bush administration for allowing equipment to degrade to such a degree that it could impair combat readiness. "By some accounts these equipment shortfalls are leaving up to two-thirds of the United States Army combat brigades unfit to perform basic combat duties. I do not know what could be more alarming, particularly as the United States confronts growing threats to our peace and security throughout the globe, from the Korean Peninsula to the Middle East and elsewhere," said Senator Chris Dodd is a Connecticut Democrat.

In an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, the top U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace, acknowledged the need for more money to repair and replace equipment, but he dismissed suggestions the Army is not ready for combat. "We are providing for our soldiers and marines on the ground the finest equipment ever fielded. (But) we are using it up at faster rates than we budgeted for," he said.

The Senate Thursday also approved an amendment calling on the Bush administration to conduct a new intelligence assessment of Iraq, amid concerns that the worsening sectarian violence could lead to civil war.

Under the measure, the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, would have until October 1 to prepare the assessment.

Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts sponsored the amendment. "We need an assessment from the intelligence community whether Iraq is succeeding in creating a stable and effective unity government, the likelihood that changes to the constitution will be made to address the concerns of the Sunni community and the action it believes will increase the prospect of that occurring," he said.

The defense bill also includes nearly $2 billion to build 600 kilometers of fencing along the U.S. border with Mexico along with some 750 kilometers of vehicle barriers.

The Senate legislation will have to be reconciled with a similar House-passed measure before a final bill can be sent to President Bush for his signature.