WASHINGTON – Congress is sending President Barack Obama a comprehensive defense bill that would crack down on sexual assault in the military and add protections for victims.
The Senate voted 84-15 Thursday night for the legislation, which capped a year-long campaign led by the women of the Senate to address the scourge of rape and sexual assault in the ranks.
The White House had expressed support for the legislation, which would provide $552.1 billion for the regular military budget and $80.7 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations, a reflection of deficit-driven efforts to trim spending and the drawdown in a conflict lasting more than a decade.
The bill covers combat pay, ships, aircraft and bases and would provide a 1 percent pay raise to military personnel.
"This bill is not a Christmas gift to our troops and their families," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. "Supporting our troops and their families is what we owe them. It's the least we can do, for they are the gift, they are the gift to this country, to this nation and to all of its people."
The House passed the bill last week on a strong bipartisan vote.
The military's handling of high-profile cases of assault and other crimes had angered Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate, setting in motion what will be sweeping changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The congressional effort was marked by one of the most contentious hearings, when senators dressed down senior military leaders and insisted that sexual assault in the military had cost the services the trust and respect of the American people as well as the nation's men and women in uniform.
Summoned to Capitol Hill in June, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the beribboned four-star chiefs of the service branches conceded in an extraordinary hearing that they had faltered in dealing with sexual assault. One said assaults were "like a cancer" in the military.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, especially Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., grilled the chiefs about whether the military's mostly male leadership understands differences between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive justice.
"Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together," Gillibrand said.
The legislation 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 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 also would change the military's Article 32 proceedings to limit intrusive questioning of victims, making it more similar to a grand jury
The legislation does not include a contentious proposal from Gillibrand 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.
The bill would give Obama additional flexibility in deciding the fate of terror suspects at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but it stops well short of the administration's goal of closing the installation.
Congress has passed a defense policy bill every year since the Kennedy administration, but the 52nd year has been one of the more tortuous.
The House passed its version in June, and the Senate Armed Services Committee did the same. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., held off on full Senate debate until November, then tried to limit amendments amid administration concerns about efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran.
The White House feared that tough penalties would scuttle a nuclear deal with Tehran.
In a fallback plan, the Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Armed Services committees spent the Thanksgiving break working out a compromise bill that incorporated elements of their competing versions. The House passed it with no amendments. Reid's insistence that the Senate do the same drew the wrath of many Republicans, but they were expected to back the measure.
"Shameful," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who described the process as a perversion of long-standing Senate rules.
Levin said it was the "best we can do."
The legislation also would cover combat pay and other benefits, authorize funds for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and provide money to study the feasibility of establishing a missile defense site on the East Coast.