Defense Bill Clears Key Hurdle, Final Passage Expected This Week

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WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 03: U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) speaks to members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House after a meeting with President Barack Obama September 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama told reporters at the beginning of the meeting that he was confident he could get enough votes for his plan for military actions against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
Dec. 18, 2013, 12:25 p.m.

The Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act passed a key test in a 71-29 Sen­ate vote Wed­nes­day, clear­ing the meas­ure’s path to pas­sage as Con­gress races to fin­ish the bill be­fore year’s end.

The an­nu­al bill that au­thor­izes $552.1 bil­lion in spend­ing for na­tion­al de­fense and $80.7 bil­lion for Over­seas Con­tin­gency Op­er­a­tions, is con­sidered crit­ic­al for guid­ing De­part­ment of De­fense pri­or­it­ies. It provides pay in­creases for mil­it­ary mem­bers, au­thor­izes health care be­ne­fits, provides ad­di­tion­al au­thor­ity for a Pentagon pro­gram to des­troy Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons, and re­quires ad­di­tion­al as­sess­ments of Ir­an’s glob­al net­work of ter­ror­ist and crim­in­al groups.

Wed­nes­day’s clo­ture vote was a key test for the meas­ure, which has run in­to Re­pub­lic­an ob­jec­tions over a pro­ced­ur­al pro­cess that did not al­low for amend­ments this week.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans have ex­pressed out­rage that they were denied the abil­ity to have a full de­bate on amend­ments to the meas­ure on the floor earli­er this year. The Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee passed its bill in June, but the full Sen­ate did not take it up un­til just be­fore Thanks­giv­ing. Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans were un­able to work out an agree­ment to con­sider most amend­ments.

In or­der to avoid al­low­ing the au­thor­iz­a­tion bill to lapse at the end of the year, House and Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee lead­ers worked out a com­prom­ise in a pre-con­fer­ence an­nounced last week. That agree­ment af­forded the Sen­ate the op­por­tun­ity for only an up-or-down vote on the meas­ure.

Law­makers have ex­pressed frus­tra­tion that the agree­ment has pre­ven­ted a de­bate on Ir­an-sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion, and oth­er pet is­sues like an amend­ment from Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand, D-N.Y., that would take the de­cision of wheth­er to pro­sec­ute sexu­al as­saults out of the chain of com­mand.

“By deny­ing the Sen­ate the abil­ity to le­gis­late, de­bate, and amend the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act, the De­fense Ap­pro­pri­ations Act, and ad­di­tion­al Ir­an sanc­tions — and by re­fus­ing the Sen­ate the abil­ity to vote on the au­thor­iz­a­tion for the use of force against Syr­ia — the ma­jor­ity lead­er has ab­dic­ated this cham­ber’s con­sti­tu­tion­al role in shap­ing and over­see­ing na­tion­al-se­cur­ity policy,” said Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., on the floor Wed­nes­day.

Fights on those is­sues are ex­pec­ted to re­sur­face next year.

This bill does in­clude oth­er re­forms to com­bat mil­it­ary sexu­al as­sault by provid­ing a vic­tims’ coun­sel and re­mov­ing the power of com­mand­ers to over­turn sexu­al-as­sault con­vic­tions, among oth­er re­forms.

The bill also takes steps to­wards Pres­id­ent Obama’s goal of clos­ing the Guantanamo Bay de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity by al­low­ing for­eign trans­fers of de­tain­ees.

The House ap­proved the de­fense bill last week on a vote of 350 to 69. After the Sen­ate’s fi­nal pas­sage, the bill will move to pres­id­ent’s desk for sig­na­ture.

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