Senate moves forward with Defense bill

The Senate on Wednesday cleared a major hurdle to passing the Defense authorization bill before the end of the year.

The upper chamber voted 71-29 to end debate on the $607 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), setting the stage for a final vote late Thursday to send the legislation to President Obama’s desk.

Seventeen Republican senators joined with Democrats for the vote on the Pentagon policy bill, despite their anger at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for pushing the bill through without amendments. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voted against ending debate.

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The Armed Services Committee leaders had to quickly move a compromise bill through both chambers this month after the measure stalled in the Senate before Thanksgiving.

Republicans slammed Reid for stonewalling on the bill and accused him of trying to duck an amendment vote on tougher Iran sanctions.

“After wasting valuable time ramming through political appointee after political appointee, the majority wants to rush this crucial legislation through without the debate it deserves,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the floor Wednesday.

“They want to push it through the Senate without even giving the minority the ability to offer more than a single amendment,” he said.

But the legislative maneuvering required to finish the bill had the support of several Republicans on the Armed Services panel, including ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who helped hammer out the final House-Senate compromise legislation.

Inhofe and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) insisted that moving the Defense bill without amendments was the only way that the measure could get passed before the end of the year.

Other Republicans on the panel begrudgingly went along with the plan.

“The hand that we’re dealt is terrible,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who vocally pushed for passing the Defense bill.

“It’s a disgraceful performance by the majority leader,” McCain said. “If you don’t go along with this, you don’t defend the country. We’ve got to defend the country; that’s our first priority.”

Armed Services leaders said the Defense bill, which has passed for 51 straight years, had to be completed the end of the year because it has a number of expiring provisions like special pay bonuses for troops.

They said the time crunch with the House’s adjournment last week meant the compromise bill could not be altered in either chamber. It passed the House 350-69 in the final House vote of the year.

But the decision to fast-track the Defense bill meant several high-profile policy fights could not be addressed on the Senate floor.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) had competing measures on military sexual assault that attracted widespread attention and debate, but they did not get votes on the Defense bill despite a desire from senators from both parties.

While the final bill did not include Gillibrand’s proposal to take sexual assault cases outside the chain of command, it had a number of other reforms. 

The bill will strip commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts, change the military’s pre-trial rules for interviewing victims, expand a special victims counsel for sexual assault survivors and make retaliating against victims a crime.

The proposals from Gillibrand and McCaskill could get votes in the Senate as standalone measures early next year.

The NDAA authorizes $526.8 billion in base defense spending and $80.7 billion in funding for the Afghan war.

While the budget deal that passed the Senate Wednesday will ease the sequester burden on the Pentagon in 2014, the Defense bill spending is still $32 billion above the spending caps in the budget agreement.

The sweeping Pentagon policy bill will somewhat ease the restrictions on transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees to foreign countries, a compromise reached between the two chambers during the informal conference committee.

The bill also allows the annual raise for service members to be lowered to 1 percent in 2014, by not taking a position on it. The House-passed bill had called for a 1.8 percent raise.

Congress will block a number of other cost-cutting proposals the Pentagon had requested, including a block on a new round of base closures or increases to TRICARE, the military’s health program.

The Defense bill also prevents the Air Force from retiring its Global Hawk Block 30 drones and the A-10 “Warthog” fleet.

—Ramsey Cox contributed.