WASHINGTON – Congress on Friday sent President Barack Obama a massive defense policy bill that endorses his stepped-up military campaign of air strikes and training of Iraqis and moderate Syrian rebels in the war against Islamic State militants.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill that authorizes funds for basic military operations, including construction of new ships, aircraft, and weapons as well as a 1 percent pay raise for the troops. The vote was 89-11.
A coalition of defense hawks and Western state Republicans overcame objections by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and several other GOP senators, who were furious that unrelated provisions to designate 250,000 acres of new, federally protected wilderness were added to the popular legislation dedicated to military operations.
The measure would authorize the training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels battling the extremists, a mandate that lasts for two years. It also would provide $5 billion to train Iraqis to counter the militants who brutally rule large sections of Iraq and Syria.
"American air power had changed the momentum on the ground somewhat and given moderates in the region an opportunity to regroup, but ISIS cannot be defeated without an opposing force to take the fight to it on the ground," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "To do that, our Arab and Muslim partners must be in the lead because the fight with ISIS is primarily a struggle within Islam for the hearts and minds of Muslims."
Debate on the bill was fraught with emotion as Levin, who is retiring after 36 years in the Senate, delivered his valedictory speech.
Congress now has passed a defense bill for 53 consecutive years, and Levin noted that lawmakers' desire to help the troops has fostered bipartisanship despite bitter political divisions.
"They not only protect us; they unite us," said Levin, who received sustained applause and hugs at the end of his remarks.
The bill would provide the core funding of $521.3 billion for the military and $63.7 billion for overseas operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite Obama's objections, the measure maintains the prohibition on transferring terror suspects from the federal prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States.
The bill would prohibit the retirement of the A-10 Warthog, the close-air support plane often described as ugly but invaluable.
The Pentagon sought cuts in military benefits. Lawmakers compromised by agreeing to make service members pay $3 more for co-pays on prescription drugs and trimming the growth of the off-base housing allowance by 1 percent instead of the Pentagon's deeper 5 percent recommendation.
The legislation would change the way the military justice system deals with sexual assault cases, including scrapping the nearly century-old practice of using a "good soldier defense" to raise doubts that a crime has been committed. The measure would give accusers a greater say in whether their cases are litigated in the military or civilian court system, and would establish a confidential process to allow victims to challenge their separation or discharge from the military.
The bill also would make victims of the November 2009 attack at Fort Hood, Texas, eligible to receive the Purple Heart. Thirteen people were killed and more than 30 wounded by Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, who had said he was angry about being deployed to Afghanistan and wanted to protect Islamic and Taliban leaders from U.S. troops.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, sponsored the provision, calling the attack an "act of domestic terrorism."
The bill is named for Levin and Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee who is retiring after a 22-year career in the House.