By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate panel voted on Thursday to authorize $631.4 billion in defense spending for the 2013 fiscal year, blocking plans to cut the Air Force and ordering offsetting reductions in Pentagon civilian personnel to stay within the president's budget limits.
The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a defense policy bill that would authorize a base Pentagon budget of $525.8 billion along with $88.2 billion for the Afghanistan war and other overseas operations. The panel also authorized $17.3 billion for Energy Department nuclear weapons programs.
The measure - the National Defense Authorization Act - is expected to go to the full Senate in June at the earliest. After passage there, it would have to be reconciled with the version approved last week by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives before going to Obama for his signature.
"We're within the president's budget, $631.4 billion, unlike the House of Representatives, which is about $4 billion over the president's budget request," said Carl Levin, the chairman of the Democratic-controlled panel.
The authorization bill sets spending limits but does not actually appropriate funds. The Senate Appropriations Committee had not yet completed its spending plan for the 2013 defense budget, so the funding available to the Pentagon is not clear.
Levin said the panel had rejected most of the portion of the president's budget that called for reductions in the Air Force and Air National Guard. But the committee did permit elimination of some transport aircraft, he said.
The Air Force had sought to cut seven tactical air squadrons and 130 transport aircraft, along with 11,600 personnel as part of the Pentagon's efforts to reduce projected spending over the next decade by $487 billion as ordered by Congress last year.
"There was a broad feeling in the committee that the Air Force did not have a basis that was solid for where they were making these reductions," Levin said. "So we decided that we'd just better put a freeze on this for the year and then have them come back (next year) ... with a much better case."
FRUSTRATION WITH PAKISTAN
The panel expressed frustration over ties with Pakistan and moved to block certain military aid payments until the defense secretary can certify Islamabad has reopened supply lines to Afghanistan and released a Pakistani doctor imprisoned for 33 years for helping the CIA locate Osama bin Laden.
Islamabad closed its frontier to supplies for international forces in Afghanistan late last year after a border clash killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The two sides are reportedly close to a deal on reopening the supply lines.
"Our goal is to have good relationships with Pakistan," said Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the committee.
"Our goal is to see that they allow us to be able to support the men and women who are fighting and dying in Afghanistan. It is our goal to make sure that this doctor is not sentenced to death, which is basically what he got," he said.
The measure approved by the panel, which included 150 changes from the president's budget request, would block increases in fees for the Tricare healthcare system for military retirees. And it would block closure of the Abrams tank production line of General Dynamics, moving to keep it open with funding for upgrading vehicles.
To offset some of the increased costs, the bill would require the Pentagon to cut civilian personnel and service contractor funding by 5 percent over five years, which would save about $5 billion, McCain said.
McCain said the committee also took action in the bill to try to contain cost overruns in many of the Pentagon's biggest weapons systems.
"We have a strong restriction on cost overruns on the (aircraft) carrier, the Gerald R. Ford, and we have several other restrictions and modifications to the funding which we hope will at least bring some of these overruns under control," he said.
(Reporting By David Alexander; editing by Tim Dobbyn and Todd Eastham)