Time dwindles for Congress to pass key military measure

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 10, 2013 

— Lawmakers scurried Tuesday to avoid failing to pass a defense authorization bill for the first time in more than a half-century, as the nation’s top military commander warned that further delay might imperil U.S. troops stationed around the globe.

In an unusual fast-track strategy, the bipartisan heads of the House of Representatives and Senate Armed Services committees were asking their party leaders to bring a compromise measure, which sets broad defense policies, to each chamber for an up-or-down vote with no amendments allowed.

Among its key provisions, the legislation takes steps to stem the rising number of sexual assaults in the military and gives President Barack Obama increased flexibility to transfer some terrorism suspects from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to other countries. It drops the ban on transferring Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, a Middle East nation that’s been a hub of Islamic fundamentalist activity.

The legislation authorizes almost $633 billion in defense spending, slightly more than current levels, with nearly $87 billion slated for overseas operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

The measure provides hardship pay to combat troops and re-enlistment bonuses for most military personnel, along with funding authority to help destroy Syria’s chemical weapons under a U.S.-Russia accord reached in September. The accord prevented a missile strike that Obama had threatened against Syria President Bashar Assad.

Programs to combat terrorism and drug trafficking in a broad swath of countries from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Colombia also receive authorization in the bill.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., imploring them to approve the defense bill.

“The authorities contained therein are critical to the nation’s defense and urgently needed to ensure we all keep faith with the men and women, military and civilian, selflessly serving in our armed forces,” Dempsey wrote.

The bill’s handling of sexual assault cases represents a legislative victory for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Differences between McCaskill’s approach and a competing crackdown from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., led to an impasse last month that prevented the Senate from passing an earlier version of the defense bill months after the House had approved it by a broad bipartisan margin.

The revamped measure incorporates most of McCaskill’s provisions. It would make retaliating against accusers a crime and would eliminate the ability of a commander to reverse a court-martial verdict.

The accusers in sexual assault cases would be assigned independent legal counsel, convicted offenders would receive automatic dishonorable discharges and civilian authorities up to the secretary of each major military service would review military prosecutors’ decisions not to pursue charges.

“While we’re frustrated that votes on additional measures did not occur, these historic reforms will mean a new day for justice for American service members,” McCaskill said in a joint statement with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

The defense bill eschews a more radical approach favored by Gillibrand, who sought to remove the entire investigative and prosecutorial process for allegations of sexual assault from the military chain of command and establish an independent structure.

After three days of Senate debate last month, the defense measure stalled over differences on sexual assault, Iran sanctions, attempts to limit phone and Internet surveillance of Americans by the National Security Agency and other controversial issues.

Reid and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, failed to persuade senators to withdraw dozens of amendments, some of them unrelated to defense policies.

With the House returning this week from its Thanksgiving break for a one-week session before a scheduled adjournment for the rest of the year, the heads of the Armed Services panels worked in recent days to produce a streamlined defense authorization bill. It meshes the House-passed measure with parts of the stalled Senate bill and could not be changed on the floor of either chamber.

“There’s no way to get a defense bill passed this year except the way that we are proposing,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Monday.

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., Levin’s counterpart as the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Boehner had told him he wanted to confer with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., before committing to take up the measure this week.

“We’ve worked across party lines,” McKeon said. “We’ve come up with some very important things in this bill, and it’s important that it move forward.”

(Contributing Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald)

Email: jrosen@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose

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