WASHINGTON — Trumpeting a victory against careless spending, President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed a defense bill that kills some costly U.S. weapons projects and expands war efforts. In a major civil rights change, the law also makes it a federal hate crime to assault people based on sexual orientation.
The $680 billion policy bill authorizespending but doesn’t provide any actual dollars. Rather it sets guidance that is typically followed by congressional committees that decide appropriations. Obama hailed it as a step toward ending needless military spending that he called “an affront to the American people and to our troops.”
Still, the president did not win every fiscal fight. He acknowledged he was putting his name to a bill that still had waste.
The measure expands current hate crimes law to include violence based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. To assure its passage after years of frustrated efforts, Democratic supporters attached the measure to the must-pass defense policy bill over the stern objections of many Republicans.
The White House put most of its focus on what the bill does contain: project after project that Obama billed as unneeded. The bill terminates production of the F-22 fighter jet program, which has its origins in the Cold War era and, its critics maintain, is poorly suited for anti-insurgent battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates targeted certain projects for elimination, putting them at odds with some lawmakers. The same spending items deemed unnecessary or outdated by Pentagon officials can mean lost jobs and political fallout for lawmakers back in their home districts.
“When Secretary Gates and I first proposed going after some of these wasteful projects, there were a lot of people who didn’t think it was possible, who were certain we were going to lose, who were certain that we were going to get steamrolled,” Obama said. “Today, we have proven them wrong.”
In another of several examples, the legislation terminates the replacement helicopter program for the president’s own fleet. That program is six years behind schedule and estimated costs have doubled to more than $13 billion.
Yet the legislation still contains an effort by lawmakers to continue development — over the president’s strong objections — of a costly alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force’s fighter of the future. A White House veto threat about that never happened.
“There’s still more fights that we need to win,” Obama said. “Changing the culture in Washington will take time and sustained effort.”
Obama signed the bill in the East Room, adding some fanfare to draw attention to his message of fiscal responsibility and support for the military.
He spoke more personally about the new civil rights protections. A priority of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat, that had been on the congressional agenda for a decade, the measure is named for Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming college student murdered 11 years ago.
Obama acknowledged Shepard’s mother, Judy, and remembered that he had told her this day would come. He also acknowledged Kennedy’s family. Going forward, Obama promised, people will be protected from violence based on “what they look like, who they love, how they pray or why they are.”
“This is a landmark step in eliminating the kind of hate motivated violence that has taken the lives of so many in our community,” said Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
The expansion has long been sought by civil rights and gay rights groups. Conservatives have opposed it, arguing that it creates a special class of victims. They also have been concerned that it could silence clergymen or others opposed to homosexuality on religious or philosophical grounds.
On the military front, the legislation approves Obama’s $130 billion request as the latest installment of money toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The far-reaching law also prohibits the Obama administration from transferring any detainee being held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba to the U.S. for trial until 45 days after it has given notice to Congress. Guantanamo prisoners could not be released into the U.S.