"The military needs to change its culture, and prioritize the protection of the men and women in our service," he said. "This legislation will help, certainly, but this is a huge crisis right now that the military has not yet stepped up to.

"I think it's one the most important challenges that we face in national security."

Members of both parties pushed for language in the NDAA that addresses reports that sexual assault in the military is rising, and that many service members fail to report rape. Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said the bill includes several changes aimed at reversing recent trends.

"This includes stripping the commanders of their authority to dismiss a finding by a court martial, prohibiting commanders from reducing guilty findings to lesser offenses, establishing minimum sentencing requirements for sexual assault, extending whistleblower protection to those who report rape, sexual assault or other sexual misconduct, and other vital measures," McKeon said.

Many Democrats have said sexual violence needs to be handled outside the regular chain of command, given how infrequently incidents are reported. But McKeon said he agrees with Sen. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinSen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats The Hill's 12:30 Report Congress needs bipartisanship to fully investigate Russian influence MORE (D-Mich.) that this idea should not be pursued.

"Only way to change the culture is to hold commanders responsible and accountable for their actions and decisions," he said.

McKeon broadly praised the bill as one that advances U.S. national security objectives, and provides needed support to the military. He said the bill puts pressure on al Qaeda, supports a transition in Afghanistan, and looks to control spending.

Smith supported these broad goals, but said he would propose a few amendments to the bill when amendments are considered on Thursday. These include language requiring the Obama administration to create a plan for closing Guantanamo Bay, and language limiting the President's authority o detain terrorist suspects indefinitely.

Smith also warned that if there is no solution to the sequester, the levels of spending authorized in the bill will have to be cut by up to $50 billion.

"The sad truth is, that's the likely outcome," Smith said. "There's no pathway out of sequestration that we've seen."