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Key House panel approves military pay increase

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama proposed a two-year wage freeze for most federal workers, he exempted one key group of employees: members of the military.

By doing so, the president rejected advice from the bipartisan debt commission that he created. Obama included money for a 1.6 percent raise for military personnel in his 2012 budget.

His proposal is advancing on Capitol Hill: On Thursday, the House Armed Services Committee approved a defense authorization bill that included the pay raise.

Even though Congress is expected to cut military spending overall in its new budget, members are discovering that it's far more difficult to target the pocketbooks of military personnel.

The Armed Services Committee's chairman, Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., said the bill was noteworthy for one other reason: Complying with new House rules, it contained no earmarks, which are special funds use to pay for members' pet projects.

If approved, the pay raise would be the second smallest for the military since 1962. The 1.4 percent raise approved last year was the smallest.

But the plan has generated controversy. When Obama first proposed the pay freeze for federal employees, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said it would save more money and be more fair if the freeze applied to the military, as well.

Hoyer made his remark after the Congressional Budget Office released a report in January that concluded military pay exceeded the salaries of most federal civilians who had comparable education and work experience.

For example, the study found, enlisted members of the military with 10 years of service had a median income of $64,000, compared with $48,000 for comparable federal civilians.

Overall, the committee's bill would give the Defense Department $553 billion for its base budget and another $119 billion for fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After receiving strong bipartisan backing, the bill now goes to the full House for consideration. It passed the committee by a 60-1 vote.

The only vote against the bill came from California Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, who said he opposes continuing the war in Afghanistan.

"Because I wholeheartedly support our soldiers and their families, I cannot in good conscience vote to extend a war without an endgame," he said.

It's too soon to say whether the pay raise will win final approval from Congress. The Senate Armed Services Committee won't have a hearing on its bill until June, and details have yet to be released.

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