WASHINGTON – The House overwhelmingly approved a comprehensive defense policy bill Thursday that aims to stem the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military, cover the cost of combat pay for the nation's war-fighters, and fund new aircraft and ships.
The strong bipartisan vote was 350-69, and puts pressure on the Senate to act before it adjourns next week.
Reflecting the drawdown in Afghanistan and reduced defense spending, the bill would authorize $552.1 billion for the regular budget plus $80.7 billion for conflicts overseas in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. It represents a compromise worked out by the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services committees after a similar bill stalled in the Senate just before Thanksgiving.
In appealing for support, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services panel, said the measure provides "badly needed reforms to help alleviate the crisis of sexual assault in the military."
The panel's senior Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, said the legislation was critical. "To not pass this is to jeopardize our national security and not support our troops," Smith said.
Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act every year since the Kennedy administration. However, more than a 51-year streak is at stake.
The comprehensive bill would provide a 1 percent salary increase for military personnel, keep construction going on bases and an aircraft carrier in Virginia, and pay for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria.
In the Senate, Republicans are furious with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's tactics, accusing him of tyranny for changing the rules to reduce their power over nominations last month and denying them the opportunity to offer amendments on the defense bill.
Over President Barack Obama's objections, several lawmakers want to add to the legislation a new batch of tough sanctions on Iran. The administration argues that the penalties would scuttle last month's deal on Iran's nuclear program, standing as a sign of bad faith to U.S. negotiating partners and possibly providing Tehran with an excuse to abandon the negotiations.
Senate Republicans face a difficult decision with far-reaching political implications. They could block the defense bill just days before Christmas, challenging the notion of rushing through a massive bill without any amendments. Defense represents more than half the government's discretionary budget.
That explanation would be a tough sell with voters in states with large military installations such as Texas, Kentucky and South Carolina, where GOP Sens. John Cornyn, Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham also face primary election opponents.
Senior military leaders, including Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have written to congressional leaders, pleading with them to approve the bill.
The legislation includes nearly two dozen provisions addressing the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. The Pentagon has estimated that 26,000 members of the military may have been sexually assaulted last year, though thousands were afraid to come forward for fear of inaction or retribution.
The bill would strip military commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, require a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and require that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal. The bill also would provide victims with legal counsel, eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial in rape and sexual assault cases, and criminalize retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault.
The compromise adds another provision with strong bipartisan support that would change the military's Article 32 proceedings to limit intrusive questioning of victims, making it more similar to a grand jury
Outraged by several high-profile cases, Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate united behind efforts to stop sexual assault. Reps. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., seized the lead in the House, while the record number of women on the Senate Armed Services Committee -- seven of the panel's 26 senators -- shepherded changes in the Senate.
Tsongas said the latest changes were only one step, as each year Congress discovers another shortcoming in the rules.
"There is no single bullet," she said in an interview. "This is multifaceted in its challenge and is going to require many, many efforts to deal with those facets."
The legislation does not include a contentious proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to give victims of rape and sexual assault in the military an independent route outside the chain of command for prosecuting attackers, taking the authority away from commanders.
That proposal drew strong opposition from the Pentagon and several lawmakers. Gillibrand's plan is likely to get a separate vote, perhaps as early as next month.
Among other provisions, the bill would bar transfers of terror suspects at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the facilities in the U.S., an extension of current law. But it would give the Obama administration a bit more flexibility in sending suspects to foreign countries.
The bill would provide money to consider a possible location of a missile defense site on the East Coast.