By Arlette Saenz
With the clock ticking until the House of Representatives departs Washington, D.C., for the holidays on Friday, leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees hammered out a deal today to move forward with the defense authorization bill to fund the nation’s military next year.
The chairmen and ranking members of each committee announced that they reached an agreement on the National Defense Authorization Act, which will authorize $552 billion in national defense spending and nearly $81 billion for overseas contingency operations.
But as Congress faces a time crunch, the lawmakers were forced to act more quickly on the legislation than they would have liked. Rather than going to conference on the House bill and the measure approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee, private negotiations between the committee leaders occurred to craft the final deal.
“I wish we had time for a more full debate on this. But we’re here at this point saying we are where we are and we ran out of time,” said Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “We owe the men and women in uniform and our national security to finish up this bill.”
“This is the only way we could pass a bill this year. It’s not the first time something like this has happened,” said Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The NDAA, which still faces votes in the House and the Senate, ensures that troops will be paid in 2014. It also contains provisions that prohibit the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. and bars the construction of facilities for detainees in the U.S.
But notably missing from the NDAA is a controversial measure sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., which would have removed the chain of command from the prosecutions of sexual assault cases in the military.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to hold a vote on Gillibrand’s amendment last month, but the vote was blocked by Senate Republicans. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., also crafted an amendment dealing with sexual assaults in the military that failed to receive a vote.
Though it won’t be included in NDAA, Gillibrand’s amendment could see a vote as a stand-alone bill in the future.
“We are confident that we will get a vote. Regardless of what happens, the senator will not go away. She will keep fighting to protect our brave men and women in uniform and to strengthen our military,” said Bethany Lesser, a spokesperson for Gillibrand.
Despite Gillibrand’s and McCaskill’s bills not making it into the NDAA, there are still historic reforms regarding military sexual assaults contained in the legislation, including stripping commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, providing independent counsel to each victim that reports a sexual assault, and requiring a dishonorable discharge or dismissal for anyone convicted of sexual assault.
The NDAA also criminalizes retaliation against victims who have reported a sexual assault, creates a civilian review of cases that are not prosecuted, and eliminates the statute of limitations in these cases.
McKeon said he hoped that the House could vote on the NDAA by the end of the week, setting up a vote in the Senate for next week.