House passes Defense bill aimed at blunting increase in sexual assaults

The House on Friday passed a new defense bill that that seeks to reverse an increase in sexual assaults in the military.

The sweeping $638 billion bill strips commanders' ability to overturn guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases, and establishes a minimum sentence of dismissal for sexual assault offenders. It would also expand legal counsel to victims of sexual abuse, and remove service members who have inappropriate relationships with the people they train.

It was approved in a 315-108 vote, with just 18 Republicans opposing it. 

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Democrats had pushed for even more significant changes to how the military handles sexual assault cases in their alternative amendment, which was defeated before the final vote. The Democratic bill would have allowed victims to take the decision on whether to try sexual assault cases out of the hands of military commanders, and is similar to legislation in the Senate offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Those who support taking the decision to prosecute cases away from commanders say the military has shown it cannot police itself, and that the chain of command discourages victims from reporting their crimes.

The bill also restricts the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay, funds construction of a new East Coast missile defense site and gives the Pentagon $5 billion more than requested for the war in Afghanistan.

But the issue of sexual assault has received the most public attention this year, in the wake of a new report that estimated there were 26,000 assaults in 2012, an increase of more than one-third since 2010.

During debate consideration, the House made the bill even tougher, by adding a two-year minimum sentence for service members convicted of sexual assault. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said his proposal for a minimum sentence would create a stronger deterrent against assault in the military.

"No longer will a victim be forced to salute their predator," Turner said during Thursday debate.

But Democrats disagreed, and said creating a two-year minimum sentence might worsen the problem that is already rampant in the military — the failure to report sexual assault cases. Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) said a mandatory minimum could have a "chilling effect" on reporting cases.

In the Rules Committee, Republicans pushed aside language from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) that would have given chief prosecutors of the Armed Services oversight of sexual assault cases. They also failed to make in order an amendment from Reps. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) to give these cases to military lawyers. 

During amendment consideration, the House accepted several Democratic amendments. One of these, from Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), would make sexual abuse of subordinates an offense, and another from Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) would require service academies to add sexual assault prevention in ethics curricula.

Members also accepted language from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) requiring the Defense Department to report on how it is keeping records related to sexual assault.

While sexual assault was a priority issue this year, the House also sought to set defense policy guidelines in several other areas in the bill that authorizes $527 billion in base Pentagon spending.

One of the most controversial issues debated was the issue of Guantánamo Bay, as Democrats sought to lift restrictions on transferring detainees to the U.S.

Republicans not only blocked attempts at easing the restrictions on detainees but also expanded them, passing an amendment from Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) to prevent the transfer of detainees to Yemen.

President Obama said last month he is renewing his efforts to close Guantánamo and would restart transfers to Yemen, which were suspended in 2010. Of the 86 cleared detainees at the detention facility, 56 are from Yemen.

The White House threatened to veto the defense bill over the Guantánamo restrictions, among other issues. That threat was also made last year, however, and the bill was ultimately signed into law with the restrictions included.

Members also clashed over the U.S. detention policy for terrorists. The House narrowly approved a Republican amendment that ensures U.S. citizens who are captured as terrorists suspects have a right to a habeas corpus review, an attempt to ensure U.S. citizens are not held indefinitely.

"This is an important amendment that should alleviate any of the well-founded concerns of the American people concerning the possibility of indefinite detention of United States citizens," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) of his amendment, which the House approved 214-111.

Most Democrats opposed Goodlatte's language and instead argued for language making it clear that the president has no authority to detain anyone captured on U.S. soil. But the House rejected that option, as Republicans said it would force into Article III courts people who may not be prosecutable.

Republicans and Democrats teamed up on Friday to reduce the $85 billion authorized for Overseas Contingency Operations. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sponsored an amendment to pare that figure back to the $80 billion that the Defense Department requested, and called his proposal a "truth in budgeting measure."

Many Republicans agreed. "I haven't been here very long, only three years, but I've seen a pattern developing now, which is that each year ... the Pentagon comes over and asks for a certain amount of money, and then we give them more than they ask for," Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said Friday.

The House rejected Van Hollen's amendment in a 191-232 vote. But on Wednesday, Democrats warned that without a solution to the sequester, the spending authorized by the bill may have to come down regardless of what the House passes this week.

"The sad truth is, that's the likely outcome," House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said. "There's no pathway out of sequestration that we've seen."

The House did pass an amendment from Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) that said the president should remove combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and it calls for a vote in Congress on any troops that will stay beyond 2014.

Many Republicans supported the amendment, saying that it merely codified Obama's current policy.

In other areas, the House voted in support of issues that Republicans have raised over the last few years.

The House once again included funding to begin construction a third missile interceptor site on the East Coast. Like last year, the Senate Armed Services Committee rejected the new site in its bill that passed Thursday, setting up a potential fight in conference committee.

Other examples included the approval of amendments to block enforcement of the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, ban the killing of U.S. citizens with unmanned drones, and sell F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan.