By DONNA CASSATA
2013-12-13 11:42 PM
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A comprehensive defense policy bill that aims to deal with the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military is heading to the Senate, where it could get slowed by Republican outrage over majority Democrats' limits on Republican power.
The House overwhelmingly passed the legislation, 350-69, on Thursday night. The strong bipartisan vote puts pressure on the Senate to back the legislation without changes even though Senate Republicans are furious with their inability to offer any amendments to the massive bill.
Among other provisions, the bill would bar transfers of terror suspects at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to facilities in the U.S., an extension of current law. But it would give the Obama administration a bit more flexibility in sending suspects to foreign countries. The bill would also pay for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria.
Reflecting the withdrawal 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 represented 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 last month.
The bill would provide a 1 percent salary increase for military personnel, keep construction going on bases and an aircraft carrier and cover combat pay for war-fighters. The question is whether Senate Republicans would scuttle the popular bill days before Christmas at a potential political cost to incumbents facing primary election challengers.
Congress has passed the National Defense Authorization Act every year since the Kennedy administration. Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, are angry over tactics by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, accusing him of tyranny for changing the rules last month to reduce their power over nominations and denying them the opportunity to offer amendments on the defense bill.
The bitterness was evident in Sen. Rand Paul's words on the Senate floor.
"We have no more rules, and we have no more comity. We have no more compromise," the Republican said. "What we have is poison, poison that's been given to us by people who have no concern for the rules."
Senate Republicans could block the defense bill, challenging the notion of rushing through a massive bill without any amendments and force Reid to secure 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to move ahead.
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.