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.
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.
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.
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.