WASHINGTON – The House overwhelmingly passed a sweeping, $638 billion defense bill on Friday that imposes new punishments on members of the armed services found guilty of rape or sexual assault as outrage over the crisis in the military has galvanized Congress.
Ignoring a White House veto threat, the Republican-controlled House voted 315-108 for the legislation, which would block President Barack Obama from closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and limit his efforts to reduce nuclear weapons.
The House bill containing the provisions on sex-related crimes that the Obama administration supports as well as the detention policies that it vigorously opposes must be reconciled with a Senate version before heading to the president's desk. The Senate measure, expected to be considered this fall, is $13 billion less than the House bill — a budgetary difference that also will have to be resolved.
The defense policy bill authorizes money for aircraft, weapons, ships, personnel and the war in Afghanistan in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Shocking statistics that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year and high-profile incidences at the service academies and in the ranks pushed lawmakers to tackle the growing problem of sexual assault. A single case of a commander overturning a conviction — a decision that even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel couldn't change — drove a deliberate Congress to act swiftly.
Both the House and Senate were determined to shake up the military's culture in ways that would ensure victims that if they reported crimes, their allegations wouldn't be discounted or their careers jeopardized.
"This is a self-inflicted wound that has no place in the military," Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who lost both legs and partial use of an arm in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq, told her colleagues in the final moments of debate on Friday.
The House bill would require a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison for a member of the armed services convicted of rape or sexual assault in a military court.
Officers, commissioned warrant officers, cadets and midshipmen convicted of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or attempts to commit those offenses also would be dismissed. Enlisted personnel and noncommissioned warrant officers convicted of similar crimes would be dishonorably discharged.
The bill also would strip military commanders of the power to overturn convictions in rape and sexual assault cases.
Duckworth and several other Democratic women made a last-ditch effort to change the bill to allow a victim to choose whether the Office of Chief Prosecutor or the commander in the victim's chain of command decides whether the case would go to trial. They argued that the bill did not go far enough.
Their effort failed, 225-194, but in an emotional moment on the House floor, a wheelchair-bound Duckworth received kisses, hugs and handshakes after her plea.
Despite last-minute lobbying by Obama counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco, the House soundly rejected Obama's repeated pleas to shutter Guantanamo. In recent weeks, the president implored Congress to close the facility, citing its prohibitive costs and its role as a recruiting tool for extremists.
A new hunger strike by more than 100 of the 166 prisoners protesting their conditions and indefinite confinement have prompted the fresh calls for closure. Obama is pushing to transfer approved detainees — there are 86 — to their home countries and lift a ban on transfers to Yemen. Fifty-six of the 86 are from Yemen.
"They represent some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world," said Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., who argued that Yemen as a destination made no sense since it is home to an active al-Qaida affiliate.
Countering her argument, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said the nation's intelligence experts have determined that the detainees are an acceptable risk for release and hardly a grave threat to the country.
"Holding them forever is un-American," he said.
The senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Smith said U.S. maximum security prisons are perfectly capable of holding terrorists, with some 300 terrorists, including some of the most notorious, currently incarcerated.
The House voted down Smith's amendment to close the naval detention center by Dec. 31, 2014, on a 249-174 vote. It also backed Walorski's amendment to stop the president from transferring any detainees to Yemen. That vote was 236-188.
Smith said his staff worked with the White House to win votes for the amendment.
"We floated this out, they said they support it, and they've been lobbying to get votes for it," he said just before the vote.
The restrictions in the House bill put it at odds with the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the defense bill provides Obama with the flexibility to transfer detainees from Guantanamo to locations in the United States for detention and trial as well as to other countries that are willing to take them, according to the panel's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
On transfers to other countries, the Pentagon would have to certify that the move can be done safely, Levin said.
There are still restrictions, "but there is greater flexibility provided," Levin told reporters Thursday. But the committee's senior Republican, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said he would fight to have the transfer authority stripped out of the committee's bill when it comes to the Senate floor this fall.
Inhofe called Guantanamo "a great asset, a great resource" that needs to stay open.