Defense Bill Nears Finish Line as Senators Renew Fight for Military Sexual-Assault Reform

Defense Bill Nears Finish Line as Senators Renew Fight for Military Sexual-Assault Reform

A new defense authorization bill will hit the House floor this week, senior House and Senate committee staffers said, but its eventual passage will likely hinge on whether the Senate can avoid controversial amendments—including a high-profile effort to change how the military handles sexual-assault cases—that could derail its support.

The Senate is expected to take up the bill next week in the final days of the lame duck, and a staffer for the Senate Armed Services Committee said leaders hope to pass it under unanimous consent but acknowledged members may not adhere to that request. “We will be asking people to pass the bill without amendments,” the aide said. “[But] life in the Senate is always difficult.”

One potential sticking point is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s plan to separate sexual-assault prosecutions from the military chain of command, which failed to clear a 60-vote hurdle earlier this year. Gillibrand said Tuesday she hopes to attach that provision to the National Defense Authorization Act, despite Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin’s indication a day earlier that such amendments would not be part of the process.

A bipartisan group of senators launched a new attempt Tuesday to move the proposal forward.

“How many more victims are required to suffer? … How many lives must be ruined before we act?” Republican Sen. Susan Collins asked at a press conference with other senators.

Republican Sen. Dean Heller acknowledged that supporters face a tough fight and a short timeline, but said that “we’re going to continue to push.” Yet if Gillibrand’s amendment gets a vote, Sen. John McCain said he also wants a measure on sending arms to Ukraine, which could further complicate passage.

The bill also reauthorizes for two years the training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels in the fight against the Islamic State—authority that is now set to expire Dec. 11. In addition, it authorizes sending troops to Iraq to train and assist forces there.

The bill outlined by committee staffers is a compromise between the House and Senate Armed Services panels, which had been stuck on a Pentagon proposal to limit pharmacy and housing benefits as a cost-saving measure. House members opposed the cuts, but reached a deal whereby pharmacy co-pays will see a one-year increase of $3 and housing allowances will see a 1 percent decrease.

More long-term cuts—such as those outlined by the Defense Department—will be settled in coming years following a report from the Commission on Compensation and Benefits.

The proposed NDAA authorizes a base discretionary budget of $521 billion, $17.9 billion of which is designated for the Energy Department. The bill includes $63.7 billion for the overseas contingency operations budget. Of that, $3.4 billion is designated for U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria, while $1.6 billion is pegged for training and equipping Iraqi troops.

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